As might be inferred from the title, this is all about Daniel Pinchbeck, who, for a variety of reasons, is for me a favourite writer-commentator-thinker and indeed, practitioner, as he has never balked at directly experimenting with the diverse levels of consciousness available to anybody ambitious and brave enough to go for it. And not only that, he can write very well, but that goes without saying… –Aurick
Daniel Pinchbeck has written features for The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, Wired, Harper’s Bazaar, The Village Voice, Salon, and many other publications. He is one of the founders of Open City, an art and literary journal, and an independent book publisher. He was a 1999 – 2000 Fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University. He has also been a columnist for The Art Newspaper of London, and an editor at Connoisseur Magazine. Born in 1966, he grew up in New York City, where his father, Peter Pinchbeck, was an abstract painter. His mother, Joyce Johnson, was part of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. She is the author of several books, including Minor Characters, a memoir. He went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, then worked as a magazine editor and journalist,
In the late 1990s, after years of working in the media, Pinchbeck fell into the classic existential or spiritual crisis. Life seemed to have no point or transcendent meaning. He began to feel as if he was already dead, a ghost walking around the streets of Manhattan. At some point he recalled his fascination with psychedelic mushrooms and LSD in college. He experimented again, and his experiences inspired him to travel to Nepal and India, where he visited Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and the sacred Hindu festival Kumbh Mehla.
Back in New York, he began to study shamanism and the magical plants used in rituals. On assignment, he went to Gabon, in West Africa, and took iboga, a long-lasting psychedelic rootbark, in an initiation ceremony. He visited a shaman in Oaxaca, the son of the famous shamaness Maria Sabina. He attended a conference on “Visionary Entheobotany” in Palenque, Mexico and visited Burning Man. He went down to the Ecuadorean Amazon to visit the Secoya tribe and take ayahuasca, a visionary medicine.
Breaking Open the Head describes his own process of discovery, and a profound paradigm shift. He admits to still being surprised – even extremely astonished – at what he has found. Through direct experience, Pinchbeck learned that shamanism was a real phenomenon, that direct access to the spiritual world is available to anybody who is willing to explore for themselves and escape the prevailing orthodoxies, the “irrational rationality” of the current system. He supports the perspective of Christ in the Gnostic “Gospel of Thomas,” who said: “Open the door for yourself, so you will know what is.”
The following are excerpts from Breaking Open the Head and also found at http://www.breakingopenthehead.com/read_the_book_snake.htm
The purpose of taking [yagé] is to return to the uterus … where the individual “sees” the tribal divinities, the creation of the universe and humanity, the first human couple, the creation of the animals, and the establishment of the social order. – Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, Flesh of the Gods
We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one? – Rig Veda (c.1000 BC)
Included here are sections from my book. The first four sections are about visiting the Amazon to take ayahuasca, the sacred Amazonian jungle brew. I consider ayahuasca (also known as yagé) to be an extraordinarily profound and healing “medicine.” The last section, “Phantasticum, $2000,” is a long evocation of an ayahuasca trip and some further speculations, that did not make it into the finished book.
I FIRST DRANK the brew with strangers, wearing Adult Depends diapers and a blindfold, sitting in a small, drab apartment overlooking the East River. New Age-sounding tribal music played on a tape deck. Initially, I saw, as Burroughs had, images of grey squalor – bodies lying in the gutter of an anarchic slum, animals at a trough. I had a momentary vision of bright emerald-green vines waving in front of a blue waterfall. Afterwards, for a long time, there was nothing else. I listened to the gasping and retching of the woman sitting across from me. She was horribly sick for hours. The guides tried to help her, but to no avail.
The Indians revere ayahuasca for its healing powers. The purging of parasites and toxins is part of the healing process. I felt like an alien intelligence was coursing through me, examining my organs and nerves and cellular processes, making subtle adjustments. It was like I was a computer and ayahuasca was a program performing scans and repairs. When it had done its work, I threw up – the vomiting was like the beep at the end of a program.
My thoughts drifted off. I watched a scene taking place within my mind. Particles, like little flares of light, gathered into clouds that floated upwards – when they arose, the focus of my awareness would suddenly shift to a different subject. I realized I was watching a model of thinking, of the neurochemical process of my subconscious creating thoughts. These clouds were synaptic concentrations, neural nets; one after another, they floated to the surface of my consciousness. When the information reached a sufficient density, “I” would be presented with a new perception.
This vision was a small revelation. I realized that most thoughts are impersonal happenings, like self-assembling machines. Unless we train ourselves, the thoughts passing through our mind have little involvement with our will. It is strange to realize that even our own thoughts pass by like scenery out the window of a bus – a bus we took by accident, while trying to get somewhere else. Most of the time, thinking is an autonomous process, something that happens outside of our control. This perception of the machine-like quality of the self is something that many people discover, then try to overcome, through meditation.
Ayahuasca is sophisticated jungle chemistry. The Amazonian potion usually consists of two ingredients, the bark of the ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi, which grows in thick double-helix-shaped coils around rainforest trees) and the leaves of psychotria viridis or some other plant. The vine contains a class of psycho-active and sedating drugs called betacarbolines, which includes harmine and harmaline. The leaves have NN-DMT in them, a highly potent hallucinogen that is also produced within the human body, in the base of the spine and the brain. Although powerful when extracted and smoked, DMT is not orally active. Mono-amine oxidase (MAO) enzymes in the gut break it down before it reaches the brain. You can eat pounds of the stuff without feeling an effect. However, the betacarbolines in the vine are natural MAO inhibitors, which means they allow the DMT to work. The ayahuasca brew, according to Santo Daime, a Brazilian religion which takes yagé as its sacrament, is a combination of the “force” of the vine and the “light” of the leaves.
DMT, smoked alone, creates a rapid-fire visionary experience, an overwhelming immersion in an extremely alien world that lasts less than ten minutes. The betacarbolines, taken alone, create subtle, monochromatic hallucinations that are soft, warm, and humanized. A friend of mine described seeing compassionate maternal faces floating over him after a strong dose. Mixed together in the ayahuasca brew, the betacarbolines seem to have a pacifying and humanizing effect on the DMT visions, acting like an interface, and they stretch the experience out from a few minutes to a few hours. It is unknown how Indians, living among hundreds of thousands of plants in the forest, learned to combine these botanical ingredients, which are usually boiled together for several hours. The Indians say that the ayahuasca vine taught them how to do it.
The more I learned about it, the more I was fascinated by ayahuasca. Even the taste seemed to change in my memory from something simply horrible to something horrible that I yearned to taste again. But the opportunities to find it in New York were few and far between. Finally, a year after that first session, I found the right ingredients and cooked up a brew for myself and two friends. I used plants that differed from the traditional Amazonian sources. In the last decades, many other plants have been found with identical chemical compounds, sometimes in much more concentrated amounts. Botanists have discovered DMT, especially, in a wide range of flora, including some common grasses. My brew was made from the reddish DMT-containing bark of mimosa hostilis and a black powdered extract of Syrian Rue, a Near Eastern plant that produces a mixture of betacarbolines, like the ayahuasca vine. Syrian Rue has an ancient history of ritual use in the Near East. Some researchers have suggested that the reddish geometrical patterned hallucinations caused by ingesting Syrian Rue may be the historical origin of the patterns on Arabian carpets – as well as the source of the Arabian myth of flying carpets.
I followed the recipes of Jonathan Ott, whose book Ayahuasca Analogues describes how to make ayahuasca-like compounds using plants from every hemisphere. “I hope the simple home technology described in this book will drive the last nail into the coffin of the evil and hypocritical … crusade to eliminate this class of drugs from the face of the earth,” he writes in his introduction. “May the Entheogenic Reformation prevail over the Pharmacratic Inquisition…”
Cutting up the plant matter, grinding it into powder, and boiling it down took an entire afternoon. The woodsy aroma of the broth permeated the apartment. Within an hour of drinking the vile stuff, both of my friends threw up violently and repeatedly. They thought I had poisoned them.
Soon enough, shuddering, I followed them to the bathroom and threw up. Afterwards I felt, spreading through me, a magnificent sensation. I felt cleansed and strong as the yagé opened my visionary capacity. I lay on the couch as my psychic periscope rose into the imaginal realms.
Images coiled around the sounds from the stereo. We played Javanese gamelan, Ravi Shankar, Ornette Coleman, Bach. The dead skin around perception was peeled away to reveal new levels of sensory subtlety. Music was like a physical event permeating the cells, opening new pathways through the psyche with every change in phrase.
Images crowded into my mind – faint, fragmentary, flickering. I entered viny jungles, shot through the abandoned reaches of outer space. Pictures formed and dispersed at high speed. Geometric mandala patterns appeared and faded. I watched twisting forms that were tubular, tentacular. Suddenly I seemed to be on a spaceship. The creatures piloting the ship shook their long spindly limbs at me in greeting. They were plant-like, shaking their stalks and blossoms to show me their other-world comedy.
I removed my blindfold and looked around. The room was shimmering, pulsing with waves of light. I felt I was inside the liquid material, the flowing invisible currents, of my dreams. The hallucinations seemed to happen in a psychic space between willing and letting go. If I tried to force the visions, they evaporated. If I didn’t pursue them, they also disappeared. There was, I realized, a skill to perceiving them, an internal effort that required utilizing a form of seeing that was disconnected from normal vision.
I held a metaphysical dialogue, unsure if I was conversing with some higher aspect of myself or the plant-spirit, or both. I tried to interrogate that elusive “other” about the nature of life and death, the holographic universe, the spirit realms. The response was something like a suppressed giggle.
The thought came to me that human consciousness is like a flower that blossoms from the earth. The stem and the roots are invisible cords, etheric filaments that lead back to a greater, extra-dimensional being. Our separation from that larger being was only a temporary illusion. The universe was, we would know if we could perceive its workings, purposeful and good.
Then I was looking up from my grave as dirt was thrown on my coffin. Yet this horror movie vantage point didn’t bother me. It made me feel calm. We were listening to Ravi Shankar play the sitar, a woman singing with him. The music was a seductive whispering tale. Each slow melodic riff announced itself then insinuated its message like a teasing sexual possibility. Images and ideas licked out like tongues of shape-shifting flame. There were rainbow-tinged tunnels drawing me forward, visual echoes of carnival worlds and orthogonal entryways to schizoid paradises of possibility. At the end of the night I saw, very clearly, a multi-armed Shiva dancing before me. He broke apart into flimmering octopus arms, writhing plant forms. Soon after that, the visions ended.
That night, my two friends had little to report besides extreme nausea, and an expansion of their senses. Later, after other successful and failed trips, I understood that is part of the deal with ayahuasca. Compared to other psychedelics, yagé’s effects are extremely unpredictable – depending perhaps on the weather, the dream you had the night before, your horoscope. It can unveil the shamanic rainbow, access the universal serpent-power, or it can leave you vomiting and visionless. In a perverse way, for me at least, that is part of what makes the brew so appealing. Unlike LSD or mushrooms or Ecstasy, yagé cannot be commodified or consumed recreationally – its gnosis must be earned.
All the energy in the Universe
One by one, we were called up to Don Caesario, who gave us a coconut cup full of yagé, first blowing soft prayers into it. I chugged the bitter brew, suppressing shudders. Eager to push myself as far as possible, I forced myself to go back to the shaman for two more cupfuls of jungle murk later in the night, overcoming spasms of revulsion each time.
I lay back in my hammock as the activity behind my eyelids slowly intensified. Coldness enveloped me. I felt like a caterpillar in a cocoon, immobilized, receptive, fighting the turbulence in my stomach. Time seemed to slow down and distend.
Eyes closed, I saw a grid stretching in all directions. Geometrical forms of strobing spheres and pyramids arose on all of the points of the grid. These forms gave way to shapeshifting geometrical patterns, then more explicit imagery. I saw the vague form of a Mayan-like deity with an animal snout and Indian headdress. I tried to follow him, but he vanished into the ether. I looked into a swirling snake pit at the center of my visual field, where serpents slithered and coiled around each other. The snake pit turned into a field where plants were growing at an incredible velocity, blossoming and then decaying, again and again, and again. An endless profusion of botanical forms rose up, swooned, died, and rotted away. There seemed to be a message to this – that a plant, like every living being, was actually made of energy, the form we see just a temporary snapshot, an illusory interruption of the constant flow, the movement of the spirit.
Every now and then, the images were interrupted by the spasmodic gasps of somebody vomiting in the bushes. As I noticed before, when I took yagé in New York, there was a crepuscular undertone of humor around the visions. I didn’t throw up. Later I watched a line of black spacemen slowly filing into a black spaceship. It was a somber, melancholy vision. Finally I understood the meaning of this spaceship. My bowels sputtering, I suddenly needed to find the outhouse. I stumbled out into the jungle. The stars were merry and bright overhead, the banana palms and hovering trees seemed to be welcoming me into the spiritual universe as I sent off my spacemen.
The Secoya sang incredible melodies through the night. Songs of healing magic, chants in a language taught to them by the spirits. Sometimes the songs humorously copied gurgles of nausea or the roar of a wild boar. Don Esteban stood up and let loose with long, unwinding whoops that had the manic ferocity of archaic war cries. A shiver was passing through reality – when I opened my eyes I could see it, like ripples on water – and the songs matched the fast, stuttering rhythm of that shiver.
At moments it felt exactly as if the ceremonial lodge had become a boat or a spaceship, gliding across night-dark water, with Don Caesario calm at the helm. The music was like the rudder leading us forward. I felt tingling vibrations in my teeth, and throughout my body I could sense currents like a magnetic pull following the directions where the songs were carrying us.
The hallucinations started to deepen into a realm that I could not recognize, that I lack language to describe. I found myself wandering across a shimmering space with beings that never stopped changing – porcupine-quilled, tusked, multi-tongued, amoebic, but even those words are only approximations of entities that could be compared to the darker imaginings of H.P. Lovecraft. The shaman and the elders seemed to be inhabiting this space with me. They sang, their words unintelligible, to these creatures, interacting with them, in mystical communion. It seemed that this was the goal of the ayahuasca ceremony, the arrival point. These were “the heavenly people.”
Don Caesario drank another cup of the bitter brew, prepared for him by his assistant Tintin. Then he sang alone. His song seemed to be the wildest and most private ode, a psalm of solitude, unveiling the secret knowledge of his soul. He barely whispered. He breathed into the stars. Then the melody returned, his voice rose up. To my augmented ears, he seemed to be weaving a discourse on reality, on the victory of form over emptiness. As he sang, he seduced a spirit-creature that started to grow, spinning cotton candy filaments around itself. Then Tintin started to sing as well. But he seemed to challenge the shaman’s metaphysical viewpoint, arguing that emptiness ultimately triumphs over form. Don Caesario sadly concurred, and the cotton candy creation was released to fall back into the void. Startled by the concreteness of these hallucinations, I did a quick reality check, opening my eyes to the night. The shaman lay back, illuminated by the fire, the other tourists breathed or slept near me in their hammocks.
I had no more doubts that the Secoya engaged in extradimensional exploration, using ayahuasca as their psychic telescope and transport. This was what Jonathon called the “spiritual science of the Amazon.” For the Indians there was, I realized, no difference between the natural and the supernatural worlds. Their songs were the chants of spirits calling out to other spirits, weaving through the astral realms.
Later I learned that the Secoya elders say that, through yagé, they can sometimes sing new plants into being. At the end of a long night of pure trance, Don Caesario may look down at his fist to find he is holding a seed or sapling in his palm. He buries that gift from the heavenly people in his garden. In a few months it grows into a medicinal herb, a new remedy to add to their extensive herbarium. In the morning, we compared notes on our journeys. Some of the travelers were disappointed. Some felt healed or rejuvenated.
Mark and Andrew suffered interminable (you have to take yagé to fully appreciate the meaning of “interminable”) nausea and vomiting, and received no visions. Due to some last-second failure of will or nerve, they hadn’t pushed themselves to drink more. “It’s not my drug,” shrugged Mark. He chalked it up to the elusive ways of the “Great Spirit” and seemed relieved to be done with it, ready to go home. Andrew, however, struggled to laugh off his frustration over failing, yet again, to have visions. Like a secretive magician willing to reveal only one trick, the plant refused to show him anything new. Each time he drank, it attacked his guts with more violence.
Octavia said she rocketed through visionary realities. She was led around a museum of archaic artifacts to a small cube of glowing white light. “Pick it up,” the spirits urged her. “What is it?” she asked. “It is all the energy in the universe.” She decided to leave it alone.
Barbara Nelson and Kerry Locklear, a psychologist and social worker, shared a vision of a small owl watching them. Three others, including a Quechua Indian, saw dolphins spiraling in a blue ocean. (Such “transpersonal” sightings are common on yagé; when the drug was discovered by Westerners in the 1920s, scientists gave it the name telepathine.)
When I tried to tell Don Esteban about my night, he laughed. “Your soul was flying outside your body,” he said. “When your soul is flying like that, you can go anywhere you want to go. You can see anything you want to see.”
Jonathon burst into the ceremonial lodge with tears in his eyes. Even without partaking of the yagé, he had been up all night – tormented by images of encroaching oil companies, murderous guerrillas, the doomed tribe.
“Where else are you ever going to find old dudes like this who stay up all night to sing for you and heal you?” he asked. “Anyway, nothing ever really goes extinct. We might think it does, but there are a million billion universes out there. Everything that disappears from our world gets reborn somewhere else.”
Meet the Snake
Jeremy Narby was a young anthropologist studying the Ashaninca Indians in the Peruvian Amazon when he first took ayahuasca in the mid-1980s. The Indians had told him that ayahuasca was the source of their plant knowledge. They called it “forest television.” Narby was interested, though skeptical.
He was less skeptical an hour after drinking the brew, when he found himself surrounded by two huge snakes, fifty-foot boas, who spoke telepathically to him, putting him in his place: “They explain that I am just a human being. I feel my mind crack, and in the fissures, I see the bottomless arrogance of my presuppositions. It is profoundly true that I am just a human being, and, most of the time, I have the impression of understanding everything, whereas here I find myself in a more powerful reality that I do not understand at all and that, in my arrogance, I did not even suspect existed.” Later, the shaman tells him the snakes are known as “the mother of ayahuasca.”
Ayahuasca, as Ralph Metzner is noted, is a “gnostic catalyst.” It opens the door to those occult dimensions of psychic reality which are vigorously denied by modern rationalism. Like Michael Harner a generation earlier, Narby found himself forced to reevaluate his anthropological stance and his own beliefs after drinking yagé. His book, The Cosmic Serpent, is an attempt to interpret the visionary realms opened by ayahuasca in a way that might fit with a scientific worldview.
He finds that the motif of snakes, especially twin serpents – the cadeceus of Hermes and the sign of Western medicine – appears worldwide in archaic myths of creation, and as kundalini, the Hindu occult symbol of the life force. Narby links the serpent or tangled snakes often beheld through ayahuasca with the twisted and twinned coils of DNA.
He theorizes, “In their visions shamans manage to take their consciousness down to the molecular level.” Shamans, according to Narby, receive images and information from DNA. DNA, a long snake-like spaghetti string of coded data, is also an aperiodic crystal, four atoms wide, that beams out photons. “The global network of DNA-based life emits ultra-weak radio waves, which are currently at the limit of measurement, but which we can nonetheless perceive … in hallucinations and in dreams,” he writes. He theorizes that this transmission is the “vegetable gnosis” and collective consciousness of the natural world.
Detouring into molecular biology, Narby explores genetics and the Darwinian theory of natural selection. He finds that Darwin’s theory does not seem to fit the development of the genetic code, an incredibly complex language packaged with a high-tech transcription program that appeared with the first bacteria, 3.5 billion years ago. The theory of natural selection also has to be stretched to explain the sudden explosion of animal species that started 543 million years in the past.
“Throughout the fossil record, species seem to appear suddenly, fully formed and equipped with all sorts of specialized organs, then remain stable for millions of years,” Narby writes. Other psychedelic avatars share Narby’s suspicion that what is going on in evolution is more than the result of endless chemical reactions. As Stanislav Grof, pioneering LSD psychoanalyst wrote, “The probability that human intelligence developed all the way from the chemical ooze of the primeval ocean solely through random sequences of random mechanical processes has been aptly compared to the probability of a tornado blowing through a gigantic junkyard and assembling by accident a 747 jumbo jet.”
Even Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the DNA double helix, found it necessary to advance the thesis that DNA was brought here on alien spaceships to explain how DNA could work as it does. Of course, such a hypothesis resolves nothing and only adds to the mystery. [What is not commonly known is that Francis Crick admits that his insights into the structure of DNA were facilitated by ingesting LSD-25! –Aurick]
Narby suggests that the scientific adherence to the theory of natural selection is a form of faith. His book falls within “the blind spot of the rational and fragmented gaze of contemporary biology.” Against the postulates of reductive materialism, Narby believes that “DNA in particular and nature in general are minded. This contravenes the founding principle of the molecular biology that is the current orthodoxy.” He suspects that the ayahuasca vine may be exactly what the shamans say it is: The sentient spirit of nature, the mind of the forest, which directly communicates with human beings through this chemical interface.
Narby makes a laudable effort to study ayahuasca by accepting that the ayahuasqueros possess real knowledge, rather than assuming, as most Westerners have for centuries, that the shamans were either schizophrenic, deluded, fakers, or at best fabulators. It is increasingly clear that shamanic practices have validity – for healing, for spiritual regeneration, telepathic communication, and other ways. It remains difficult for scientists to approach the subject rationally because shamans work with invisible psychic currents, “supersensible” forces, and the existence of such forces – such as the subtle currents recognized by Eastern traditions – are beyond the perimeters of what our tools can measure at this point.
The existence of what cannot be quantified is not only ignored but vehemently denied by Western scientists, who forget that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” How can the rational perspective of the West comprehend a technology which makes use of invisible and seemingly unmeasurable forces? That will be a subject for the new century to explore. As Terence McKenna wrote, “Shamans speak of “spirit” the way a quantum physicist might speak of “charm”; it is a technical gloss for a very complicated concept.”
The Cosmic Serpent is only one of many recent efforts by Western commentators to reinterpret the meaning of ayahuasca shamanism for the New World Order. In Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, the anthropologist Michael Taussig explores yagé shamanism in Colombia, where ancient rituals have taken on new meanings in the wake of the cruel excesses of colonialism. Taussig’s Mestizo sorcerors exorcise terror through laughter and and improvisation, “building and rebuilding neocolonial healing rituals wherein fate is wrested from the hands of God and transcribed into a domain of chance and perhapsness.” Most anthropologists believe that all religious rituals work to order and unify society. Taussig found the opposite with yagé: The ceremonies opened up a transcendent space for chaos. He quotes Roland Barthes on the idea of a “third” or “obtuse meaning,” outside of what can be expressed in language or defined by cultural analysis:
…the obtuse meaning appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information; analytically it has something derisory about it; opening out into the infinity of language, it can come through as limited in the eyes of analytic reason; it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure. Indifferent to moral or aesthetic categories (the trivial, the futile, the false, the pastiche), it is on the side of the carnival. (Barthes, Image, Music, Text)
For Taussig, shamanism preserves a place for knowledge that can heal because it falls outside of any system. Yagé visions open up constellations of the unknown, obtuse meanings, and “chance and perhapsness.”
Narby collected some of the more nuanced accounts of shamanic practices in an anthology, Shamans through Time. Read chronologically, the essays in the book make it clear that terms for studying spirituality, shamanism, and mysticism are starting to shift radically. Recent texts include one from the anthropologist Edith Turner, who recalls seeing “a spirit form” during an exorcism ritual in Zambia:
“I saw with my own eyes a large grey blob of plasma emerge from the sick woman’s back,” she writes. “Then I knew the Africans were right, there is spirit affliction, it isn’t a matter of metaphor and symbol, or even psychology. And I began to see how anthropologists have perpetrated an endless series of put-downs in regard to the many spirit events in which they have participated – participated in a kindly pretense.” Transformed by her own experiences, Turner decries the “religious frigidity” of modern anthropologists.
The anthropologist Francoise Barbira Freedman studied the Lamista Indians in the Peruvian Amazon. In the book The Ayahuasca Reader, she tells how she apprenticed herself to a tribal shaman, taking ayahuasca and learning about the local tensions between sorcerors and shamans. “As I progressed in my apprenticeship, the increased awareness that there was no neutral position within reach frightened me,” she writes. “I was now in the game.” During one ayahuasca trip, she experienced animal transformation first hand. She became a jaguar stalking through the forest. The elder shaman visited her in the form of an eagle, communicating telepathically. “Nothing I ever read about shamanic animal metamorphosis could have prepared me for the total involvement of my senses, body, mind, in this process.” This vision was a sign of acquisition of certain shamanic powers, but she was told by the shaman that it also carried dangers with it. From then on, if she continued learning, she would have to constantly protect herself from sorcerors and malevolent spirits by magical means. Freedman decided to end her apprenticeship at this point. “There was no longer any possible vantage point for me as an anthropologist other than that of the shamanic rainbow,” she notes. She wonders how the moral structures of Western culture can absorb or adapt this ancient and ambiguous practice.
For his part, Narby thinks that ayahuasca could be a valuable tool for the modern biologist, who could use the substance to interrogate the “mind of nature” directly. Recently, Narby brought three European molecular biologists down to visit an Amazonian shaman. During their trances, they attempted to ask direct questions of the ayahuasca spirit relating to their areas of research. All received answers to their queries. For example, one genetic researcher found herself transformed into a protein flying above a long DNA strand, and was able in this way to understand the meaning of certain patterns in what had previously been considered “junk DNA”:
She saw DNA sequences known as “CpG islands,” which she had been puzzling over at work, and which are found upstream of about sixty percent of all human genes. She saw they were structurally different from the surrounding DNA and that this structural difference allowed them to be easily accessed and therefore to serve as “landing pads” for transcription proteins, which dock on to the DNA molecule and make copies of precise genetic structures.
All of the biologists were intrigued by what they found, and two of the three felt they had communicated with an “independent intelligence.”
When Dennis McKenna, Terence’s botanist brother, drank ayahuasca with the Uniao do Vegetal, a Brazilian syncretic religion that uses ayahuasca as its sacrament, he was turned into a sentient water molecule in the jungle soil, pulled up through a vine’s roots to experience the miraculous molecular processes of photosynthesis in its leaves. “Somehow I understood – though no words were involved – that the Banisteriopsis vine was the embodiment of the plant intelligence that embraced and covered the earth,” he recalled. At the end of his vision, a voice told him, “You monkeys only think you’re running things.”
Yage opens up a playful zone of “chance and perhapsness,” yet it seems to convey particular messages about the biological world, and often creates specific models of natural processes. More than other psychedelics, it seems to dissolved the rigid categories that modern culture has erected between poetry and science, medicine and magic, knowledge of the self and knowledge of the universe. If the “Vine of Souls” was a trademarked brand, it would be this book’s official sponsor.
We have drunk the Soma; we have become immortal; we have gone to the light; we have found the gods. What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now, O immortal one? - Rig Veda (c.1000 BC)
One day later in the Amazon, Jonathon took us to see a Secoya family house that Gruppo Osanimi had raised funds to build in the traditional way. The knowledge to create such a dwelling had almost been lost – only Don Augustin, one of the elders, a small man with a gnarled face wearing a plain yellow smock, remembered the skills and the correct proportions from his childhood. No place like it had been built for forty years. The construction required a level of skill and attentiveness that modern methods had made unneccesary. The oval-shaped structure was designed to house several generations together. It was a huge single room, perhaps forty feet long and twenty-five feet high, with slanted ceilings and a peaked roof. The entire structure was held together by jungle vines used to bind the wooden beams together – not one nail. Nobody lived in the house, which needed to be smoked regularly so that all of the joints would bind properly. As soon as we arrived, Don Augustin and Don Emilio lit a fire in the center. They silently directed smoke around the interior. The house itself represented the Secoya map of the cosmos – it was symmetrical, with no doors to enter, and a series of central poles represented the cosmic axes. “Like the universe it has no beginning or end,” we were told. Outside, there were plans to build a medicinal plant garden preserving the Secoya knowledge of botany.
Our group rested and napped in this house for a few hours – enough time to fully appreciate it. As I lay in a hammock looking up at the entwined beams, I slowly understood that it was one of the most harmonious structures I had ever visited. A sense of peace seemed to radiate from the building itself, affecting all of us. The Secoya hammock I was lying on was also, in its simple way, a work of art. The abstract pattern of its design suggested the interstitial geometries of certain parts of the ayahuasca visions. It was impossible to imagine a more comfortable container for the human body. Each of the hammocks required months of work. Gruppo Osanimi had been trying to keep alive the traditional method of weaving, which, like every aspect of the Secoya traditions, was threatened by the assault of the modern world. The speed of change turns the younger members of the tribe away from traditions that do not seem likely to guarantee them a future. But the options they are given – working for the oil companies or slaving in sweatshops – are also dead ends.
“The West destroyed the primitives because it could not bear the challenge they represented,” wrote Alex Polyari, a member of Santo Daime, a Brazilian ayahuasca church. Cut off from our own archaic roots, we could not bear the natives’ unity with the natural world, their attitude towards labor (it is estimated that tribesmen worked, on average, no more than three hours a day, and work for them was only a natural extension of tribal life, not alienated labor), or their direct spirituality.
The visit to the Secoya suggested, to me anyway, that human beings hold a particular place in the cosmic scheme of things. We are meant to be the gardeners of the planet, weavers of myth, explorers and journeyers into sacred realms. Part of our exploration requires developing technologies that are both spiritual and material, but right now we have become perverse in our essence. Hypnotized by materialist greed, we are polluting and destroying wantonly, and this mindless destruction will haunt future generations for thousands of years.
According to every spiritual tradition, there is only one thing you take with you after death, and that is the level of development of your consciousness and your soul. Nothing else matters. The visions I have received from ayahuasca support the truth of thiis perspective.
Months later, in New York, I brewed a batch of ayahuasca for myself and two friends. This time I used the traditional plants. Having prepared ayahausca a number of times now, I have noticed that the experience sometimes seems to coordinate with the dreams I have the night before taking it, as the Secoya believe. The night before this particular trip, I dreamt I was sent an old-fashioned banker’s check in the mail. I opened the envelope and the check had “Phantasticum, $2000” written on it.
What follows here is my account of that trip:
I saw Don Caesario, the Secoya shaman, walking around his house, sitting on a hammock. He was there for me as a helpful and supportive presence. Then there was a mandala pattern, a shimmering disk swarmed by energy. This was a vibrating quantum event, an egg dancing in the midst of millions of worshipful sperm. Lattices wove around it in patterned formations.
The visionary colors were ecstatic hues of purple, violet, every element of the spectrum pushed into a kind of neon radiance. The visibility on this trip was excellent, but it was hard to slow down to examine anything closely. The speed of the encounters and transmutations was overwhelming; generally, phenomena in the “spirit world” seem to move at an incredible velocity. For a moment I visited Burning Man at night – that desert vista of laser beams and flame throwers, glowing art cars and costumed lunatics – then I zipped back to the DMT dimension.
Without thinking about it, I asked “the spirits,” who seemed to be everywhere in the form of Tinkerbell-like shimmering pinpoints of wit and sentient energy, to build a rocket ship for me. They made it quickly, with gusto, welding it together at seamless high speed. I got into it and off we went. It was like I was at the head of a rollercoaster shooting across carnival landscapes, the dark matter of deep space. We rocketed across unknown solar systems, pinwheeled through sci-fi cities. The acceleration was tremendous. This was the cosmos as video game, a dimension that was real and illusory simultaneously.
I asked to see another inhabited planet and the spirits said, “Sure.” They brought me to a large reddish planet. I descended towards a surface where gasses poured out of rocks with giant puffs and plumes. It didn’t look inhabited at all, and I immediately sped away.
I visited the dakini living over my heart-chakra. Dakinis are part of Tibetan Buddhism. According to the Tibetans, dakinis are “sky walkers on emptiness,” enlightened female beings that sustain us and teach us things. Everybody has one living over their heart. This dakini looked like a rock star, a figure of unleashed energy, rising out of my chest. She morphed from Tina Turneresque Diva to 1970s Rockette to 1920s flapper to multi-armed Tibetan diety over and over again. She danced with extreme exuberance and joy. She sprouted wings, horns, gossamer veils, furs.
Then my viewscreen filled with Buddha figures, a repetitive four-dimensional wallpaper of Buddhas filling everything. I went up close to one of them and it changed size – shrinking to the dimensions of a pebble, then exploding out to galactic scale.
An eagle-winged Asiatic faced being flew at my “Third Eye.” When it hit me, I felt it as a physical sensation radiating out from the center of my forehead through my brain. He was golden-brown, with green-hued feathers. He had large wings, an Asiatic or Egyptian tinge, the body of a condor or eagle and a human head – this is only an approximation, as he kept morphing and self-transforming as I looked at him. (Was this Don Caesario in another form?)
I asked the spirits to show me “the land of the dead,” and they brought me to a dark space flecked with rainbow fractals. I saw my father suspended in stillness, surrounded by emptiness, as well as R. Their stillness was a contrast to the rapidly transforming spirit beings. My father floated there in his clothes – tweed jacket, baggy pants, plaid shirt. He had the same air of fixity of purpose as he had in life. I felt he had a ways to go before reaching the “next level” that the spirits of the dead reach. This area was a vast waiting room where souls tried to devise their future existence. I went to another part of this matrix-like space, a grey area, where I found my grandmother waiting in limbo. Whoever runs this realm or kingdom of souls waited to find a new use for all of them, to recycle the dead back on earth. I thought that there would, eventually, be a new opportunity for them to try again. I realized that however much time it took in our dimension- ten years or ten billion – it would be no time at all in this suspended place.
I asked the spirits to show me Shakespeare. They said, “okay” (they are not always so accomodating). He was a magical being of great size and power, made of energy. There were a million spirits in the form of fizzy colored lights dancing around him, like tiny Japanese lanterns or candleflames, helping him as he wrote, his pen scrawling across the quantum Void. James Joyce was there as well – he was like a little pendant resting on Shakespeare’s desk. I recognized that part of the artist’s spirit went directly into their creations. Their spiritual power depended on the earthbound public’s continued desire for their work. That is the deeper meaning of the artist’s quest for immortality.
I tried to hunt for malevolent spirits in different quadrants of my own body. I reached for one insectile or scorpion-like being that amuses itself with torturing me, but I couldn’t root it out.
I was surprised by the smooth cartoony nature of the graphics on this trip – it was a candy land compared to the weirder transformational spaces I saw in the Amazon. The unconvincing Yellow Submarine-style graphics are probably emanations that are not as deep somehow, and this whole rather friendly interior dimension seemed like my own personal projection into the infinite, which was different from my trips with the Secoya. At that deeper level, the masks come off and the revelations are far more shocking.
What can one make of a “drug” that activates the imagination and the internal powers of visualization to this extent? What does it mean that an element of the spirit moves at a speed far faster than thought, and seems comfortable at those speeds?
For me, the visions produced by ayahuasca support the notion that we live in what some theorists have dubbed a “holographic universe.” Physicists have defined a property of certain particles that they call “Action at a Distance.” They found that these particles, even when they were separated by vast distances, remained linked, following the same trajectory in all circumstances. This could only be the case because the particles are not, actually, separate from each other. They are parts of an extra-dimensional object and their separation is only an illusion caused by the limitations of the physical dimensions we can perceive.
The British physicist David Bohm tried to apply the insights of quantum physics to the world we experience. He postulated an “implicate” and an “explicate” order of reality. Phenomona that seem entirely separate to our senses in the explicate order are actually connected in the implicate, which is a higher dimensional space. One principle of a hologram is that the whole exists in each fragment. In psychedelic terms, the entire cosmos would be accessible through each person’s consciousness (the individual’s consciousness is, in shamanic terms, the link to other dimensions accessible through the “Cosmic Tree”). If the universe is a kind of hologram projected from extra-dimensional space, then anyone could travel anywhere in space or time instantaneously if they could move their consciousness to a higher dimension.
The mind seems to function holographically. The memory researcher Karl Pribam, for instance, found that specific memories are not stored in any single place, but distributed nonlocally across the brain – but if our memories are like a holographic projection, then from where is that hologram projected? The writer Michael Talbot examines the workings of memory and a vast number of otherwise inexplicable phenomena in his book The Holographic Universe, from UFOs to schizophrenia to manifestations of the Virgin Mary. In a holographic universe, Talbot suggests, mind and matter are intertwined. The mind would have much more power to change the actual substance of reality than it does under the materialist framework. Talbot thinks that certain experiences might be neither subjective – created in the individual mind – or objective. He coins the term “omnijective” to describe things like UFO manifestations (which can show up on radar and leave imprints in the earth) and apparitions of the Virgin Mary above a church (sometimes seen by hundreds of people). The energy of conscious or unconscious beliefs and the willpower of human beings may create actual physical manifestations that take on a level of independence from any individual consciousness.
In ayahuasca visions, I have seen, in photographic detail, entities from different spiritual traditions. I have seen Hindu gods and goddesses, Egyptian deities, and masked figures that I later identified in pictures of African rituals. I was not forcing these images into existence – they simply rose up from that vast holographic storehouse that Jung named “the collective unconscious.” Perhaps these archetypes, once enshrined in the pantheon of human belief, exist autonomously inside the “spiritual worlds” perceived through yagé. Or perhaps it was their autonomous existence on a higher order that allowed them to penetrate into the human world, through dreams, visions, and revelations.