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hallucinogenics

Is ayahuasca tourism ‘cultural appropriation’?

This essay is a personal opinion and may contain misunderstandings of my own. I’d be interested to hear from others with more knowledge and experience of ayahuasca, including indigenous healers or those who work closely with them. 

In the last 50 years, Western culture has imported many ecstatic practices. We lost our homegrown spirit as a consequence of a long process of disenchantment that began around the Reformation and continued through the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. There were of course ecstatic revivals, like Romanticism, but they were counter-currents to the main tide. 

Then, in the 1960s, there was a mass explosion of ecstatic practices. Part of that was fuelled by the rapid popularisation of non-western practices, such as yoga, Zen, TM, Tai Chi, Hari Krishna, Native American medicine like peyote and magic mushrooms, and also the popularisation of African-American culture like jazz, rock & roll and Pentecostalism.

But this ‘spiritual tourism’ raises some questions. What’s the right way to engage with another culture’s spiritual treasures? Do Westerners have the right to pick and mix, or to appropriate a culture (creating mindfulness, for example)? Can this sort of spiritual tourism actually be a form of cultural appropriation?

‘Cultural appropriation’ has become one of the rallying cries of left-wing identity politics in the US.  It’s been defined as follows:

Taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorized use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc. It’s most likely to be harmful when the source community is a minority group that has been oppressed or exploited in other ways or when the object of appropriation is particularly sensitive, e.g. sacred objects.

Campus activists have, in the last few years, criticized things like white students dressing up as stereotypical Mexicans for parties, or the use of ethnic stereotypes for sports mascots, such as the Washington Redskins or the San Diego State Incas.

And the charge of cultural appropriation has also been levelled against whities adopting non-Western spiritual practices like yoga. In 2015, for example, the University of Ottawa cancelled a yoga class when students protested against it as an instance of cultural theft. This month, a professor at Michigan State University delighted the right-wing press by describing Westerners doing yoga as an instance of white supremacy and systemic racism.

The question of cultural sensitivity (or lack of) was levelled at my last book in an excellent review by Oxford PhD Maya Krishnan. She took issue with my exploration of tantra, saying I had failed to explore its intellectual history and merely presented the ‘neo-tantra’ of Osho, which is a valid criticism. She writes:

The importation and adaptation of experiences of ego loss does not have to be a problem if it is done in the right way. But is troubling to treat other cultures as experiential storehouses which can be raided for ‘good feels’, yet whose conceptual frameworks and intellectual contributions are not worthy of consideration. Engaging with non-Western traditions requires dismantling the hierarchy which allows non-Westerners to be adept at having feelings but which reserves the authority of interpretation for Western scientists and intellectuals.

Which brings me to ayahuasca tourism. Is this, also, an example of cultural appropriation? I read two books this week, both by anthropologists of ayahuasca, which presented starkly different views.

The first is a 2008 book called A Hallucinogenic Tea Laced With Controversy: Ayahuasca in the Amazon and the United States, by medical anthropologists Marlene Dobkin de Rios and Roger Rumrill. De Rios has been researching ayahuasca use in the Amazon since the 1960s, and she is appalled by the rise of ‘drug tourism’, ie plane-loads of Western seekers descending on Peru to swig ayahuasca in an attempt to get high and fill their spiritual emptiness.

The authors are against ayahuasca tourism for two reasons. Firstly, they condemn the rise of ‘charlatan’ neo-shamans, both Amazonian and gringo, who cater to the influx of drug tourists. They charge extortionate amounts to run ceremonies, they often haven’t the proper shamanic training and don’t know what they’re doing, they mix brews with all kinds of potentially dangerous plants in the mix (such as datura or deadly nightshade), and they sometimes seduce or assault their female western clients. They are a commodified corruption of the authentic, pure, traditional village shaman that de Rios encountered in the 1960s, whose practices existed unchanged for several thousand years before the gringo tourists turned up and ruined everything.

Secondly, the authors blame the other side of the market – the Western tourists. They exhibit a deep contempt for these tourists, in passages which are so intemperate, bilious and frankly weird as to be unacademic:

A number of upscale, well to do, prominent Americans and Europeans are touring Amazonian cities. Interested neither in parrots nor piranhas [?] , they revel in special all-night religious ceremonies presided over by a powerful shaman…Unlike the jungle denizens who for the last several thousand years have drunk the potion to see the vine’s mother spirit in order to protect themselves from enemies, to divine the future, or to heal their emotional and physical disorders, the urban tourist is a on a never-ending search for self-actualization and growth…Who are these spiritual seekers? They’re ‘narcissistic, selfish, permissive men and women who put their own selves first and foremost…There is the issue of out-and-out theft of the long-standing spiritual teachings and practices of others. Men and women select what they want and ignore anything that does not fit their model…They either have no respect, and treat ayahuasca as a party drug, or they exoticize the shaman into some sort of ‘happy savage’.

The phenomenon, write the authors, ‘has become so flagrant since the mid-1980s that the culture of native peoples is in danger of extinction’. And the worst of it is, it’s partly the fault of anthropologists like de Rios. They came back to the West with tales of marvellous psychedelic ceremonies, and did their best not to sensationalize their accounts, but this opened the floodgate to the goddam tourists: ‘such ‘mass’ or pseudo-intellectual people demand access to the drugs as if it were their natural right to do so.’ They’re not just risking their sanity, their arrival also ‘effectively destroys’ the purity of indigenous culture ‘that has roots in the prehistoric past’.

The authors raise two concerns. Firstly, vulnerable Western tourists are being exploited by fake shamans. Secondly, rapacious Western tourists are ruining indigenous culture with their ravenous, disruptive and ignorant spiritual consumerism. You could say, well, both sides are exploiting the other in a free exchange, is that such a problem? Yes, says de Rios, because it’s destroying the authentic indigenous shamanism which she – the expert anthropologist – uniquely appreciates.

The second book I read is called Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, and is a collection of essays by anthropologists, published in 2014. I think it’s a much better book than the first, because it maintains a critical distance all too often lacking from academic explorations of ayahuasca. Academics have tended to get lost in their own trip: ayahuasca is an encounter with the secret of DNA (Jeremy Narby), or with ‘Grandmother Ayahuasca’ (Rachel Harris). Such personal accounts make for compelling reading, but they lack critical distance. 

The book begins by suggesting the contemporary phenomenon of ayahuasca use by Amazonians and Westerners has been ‘poorly served’ by anthropologists in the past, because they’ve constructed naive and ideologically-loaded theories of a pure and authentic traditional culture which existed unchanged for millennia until it was suddenly destroyed by Western tourists.  Instead, the editors write:

Local shamanism, cosmopolitan biomedicine and psychology, alternative therapies, New Age spirituality, and the tourism service industry have blended in intricate and fascinating ways that challenge traditional ethnographic notions of authenticity, ethnicity, tradition and place.

Firstly, is ayahuasca use among Amazon Indians definitely pre-historic? Recent work by Peter Gow, Bernd Brabec de Mori and other anthropologists challenges this view, pointing out that there’s no evidence for ayahuasca use among Amazon tribes before the 19th century. There’s evidence for the ingestion of DMT going back to prehistoric times, but not for the use of the ayahuasca brew, which mixes the ayahuasca vine with the chacruna plant. We don’t know how or when this mixture was discovered, but these authors suggest knowledge of the mixture spread among Amazon tribes in the mid-19th century as a consequence of the disruption of the rubber boom and the rise of Jesuit missionary camps, or reducciones, established by Jesuit missionaries from the 17th century onwards.

Stephan Beyer writes:

Indigenous people sought the protection of these camps from epidemic disease, depopulation, slave raiders, and the military threats of their neighbours. Here they were forced to live in common compounds regardless of their tribal distinctions. The intention was that in this way the indios infieles could be more easily controlled and converted to indios cristianos; but the unintended consequence was to form a pressure cooker of cultural interchange.

Irineu Serra with the Costa brothers

Some tribes have only started using ayahuasca in the last few decades, and have embraced it with enthusiasm. A handful of white settlers seem to have drunk ayahuasca since at least the 1920s – the founder of the Santo Daime ayahuasca church, an Afro-Brazilian called Raimundo Irineu Serra, was introduced to ayahuasca by two Spanish-Brazilian brothers, Antonio and Andre Costa. I read on the Santo Daime website that: ‘At this time the sacrament was used to guide the Indians in hunting and fishing, and also to entertain the white man in the moonlight.’  Ah the white man, always seeking entertainment.

In other words, the history of ayahuasca may be quite recent, and from the start seems to be deeply intertwined with the history of globalization, empire, disruption, trade, research and tourism. There may not be an indigenous ayahuasca culture which existed pure and unchanged for millennia before it was ruined by foreigners. On the contrary, it may have arisen quite recently, out of the shock of change and the encounter with different tribes and western civilization, and then spread through new technologies and new exchanges of knowledge and trade, including the internet. I think ecstatic practices often arise in this way, out of the shock of economic and political change and the violent / creative encounter between tribes and cultures.

Secondly, what is the ‘authentic’ use of ayahuasca, who owns it, who is entitled to use it, and how?  Glenn Shepard notes that some tribes like the Yora have only started using ayahuasca since the 1980s, and asks:

Is there anything special, unique or particular about indigenous people’s relationship to ayahuasca when compared to adepts who use it in urban centres? Do the Matsigenka and Yora have an inherently superior moral right to consume ayahuasca within their spiritual tradition when compared with, say, a Belgian Santo Daime member risking incarceration to consume an illegal substance? Such questions raise troubling doubts about our sometimes facile resort to terms such as ‘tradition’, ‘modernity’ ‘indigeneity’, and ‘authenticity’.

There are genuine issues around the economics of ayahuasca tourism. On the one hand, why shouldn’t local ayahuasqueros make money from their work? Why shouldn’t tourism revenues go into the Uyacali, one of the most deprived regions of Peru? On the other hand, Bernd Brabec de Mori estimates that only a few dozen Shipibos ‘live well on ayahuasca tourism’ out of a population of 50,000. Centres owned by or employing Westerners have advantages of language and culture which enable them to attract more Western tourists than local healers. The inequality caused by tourist revenues leads to envy, social discord, and magical attacks against shamans who cater to gringos. And it can mean that locals are priced out of the market – why would shamans provide their services to locals for free when you can sell them to gringos for hundreds of dollars?

There are also serious issues with the ethics and competence of shamans – boom times always lead to a rise in shysters. But I’m sure there have always been shamans who caused harm and abused their power, as with priests, therapists, gurus, psychiatrists or any technicians of the soul. Western tourists should be aware of this and not romanticize or exoticize the shaman, which is forgivable and well-intentioned but still a subtle form of objectification. Daniela Peluso writes:

whereas Amazonian women tend to view shamans as humans who can potentially be abusive, uninfomred Western women do not…it is the coinciding of shamans who view women as easy prey with women who idealize shamans that exacerbates the trend of seduction within ritual contexts.

Has a ‘pure’ indigenous shamanism been corrupted by foreign influence? Yes, some ‘neo-shamans’ offer rituals which seem to throw everything into the mix – jaguars, condors, Mama Ayahuasca, Pachamama, Jesus, Mary, chakras, spiritualism, energy fields, past lives, UFOs. And you could see that as a corruption caused by the similarly ‘pick n’ mix’ Western tourists. But to me, Latin American folk religion has been that sort of syncretistic mash-up for several centuries.

It’s hard for a Western academic to decide which shamans are legitimate and which are bogus, because it depends on unquantifiable things like their dominion over the spirit world. It’s also arrogant and even imperialist – who is de Rios to decree who are genuine shamans and what is and isn’t the legitimate use of ayahuasca? Who made her the jungle pope?

Are Western tourists so very decadent in their motives? Evgenia Foutou met and interviewed many ayahuasca tourists in Peru, and discovered: ‘A majority of participants in ayahuasca ceremonies are motivated by a desire to be healed and have reported successful healing from both psychological and physical ailments.’ That’s not so different to Amazonian clients. Are they more disrespectful in their approach to rituals? No – if anything, they’re more pious. Shipibo ceremonies for tourists are, according to Brabec de Mori, far more formal than ceremonies for locals, in which the shaman will rarely dress up and people come and go as they please. Shipibo shamans joke among themselves, apparently, about the ridiculously elaborate shows their peers put on for the tourists.

Diverging models of illness and healing

There is, of course, a world of difference between Western and Amazonian theories of psychological illness and cure. As Anne-Marie Losonczy and Silvia Mesturini Cappo explore in their essay on ‘Ritualized Misunderstandings’, Amazonians see illnesses either as natural (and therefore treatable with biomedicine) or as caused by sorcery. Ayahuasca helps the shaman identify the instigators of the sorcery, battle the malevolent spirits they have sent, and sometimes get revenge. The cause and cure for illness are ‘out there’, in present social disputes.

Westerners by contrast see psychological problems as caused by emotions, often rooted in family relationships and childhood traumas, and think healing involves release, acceptance, love, forgiveness and sometimes an encounter with one’s higher self or a benevolent higher power, rather than some local and morally-ambiguous spirit ally. The cause and cure for illness are ‘in here’, often in the past.

In other words, the Amazon shaman and the Western tourist meet in the incredible intensity of the ayahuasca ceremony, and have completely different models of what takes place. There is a ‘fundamental misunderstanding’. But they both come away satisfied. They’re able to do this partly because the ceremony takes place in music and gesture, while verbal interaction is kept to a minimum. Western or local mediators help to translate what’s taking place into terms the Western clients can accept, like ‘facing your shadow’ or ‘discovering the real you’.

Do they really get each other?

I chose to do ayahuasca at the Temple of the Way of Light, a well-known centre near Iquitos set up by a British man, which employs Shipibo shamans, because it combined indigenous practitioners with Western facilitators. I wanted to be able to seek support from Western therapists if necessary. My understanding of what was taking place was guided by them, more than the shamans, who didn’t speak English. I did find the shamans’ singing extraordinary and important to my healing experience, but who is to say how much of that was cultural projection on my part? I simply don’t know, because I don’t know whether ayahuasca connects to a genuine spirit world, and what the nature of that world is. I don’t know the precise distribution of revenues within the Temple, but it does fund an institute to support local indigenous communities and culture, and also to support the sustainable growth of the ayahuasca vine.

To conclude, ayahuasca tourism involves all kinds of risks, myths, misunderstandings and unintended consequences. As tourists we should seek to protect ourselves from the risks, and be careful who we trust. It might also be respectful to research about indigenous ayahuasca culture, which is what I’ve done since coming back from Peru. But the more I do, the more I see the distance between Western understandings of ayahuasca healing, and Amazonian understanding of it. Most Western tourists are ignorant of the sorcery-model of illness and healing, and I think would be quite surprised and put off if they knew more about it. To me, it is not a good model for Westerners, not one I want to adopt or disseminate.

What we see in ayahuasca tourism, instead, is a Westernized, Christianized version of ayahuasca culture. Instead of the Amazonian idea of dominating spirits in order to expose your secret enemies and get revenge, Westerners use ayahuasca to identify the traumas or emotional blocks in their psyche, and to find healing through acceptance, love, perseverance, and surrender to a totally benevolent higher power. It’s close to the therapeutic Deism one finds in most contemporary churches, in which Jesus is basically your life coach, but with a nature Goddess rather than a cosmic God. Perhaps it’s rather boring and bland compared to Amazonian sorcery battles. But I think it’s much healthier for Western psyches.

If ayahuasca use continues to grow among Westerners, we’re likely to see more and more Westernized centres, owned and run by Westerners, probably increasingly based in Europe and the US (in Oregon, a new church which uses ayahuasca is currently defending its right to use the brew in the courts). Where will they source their ayahuasca? Do we have the right to grow our own ayahuasca and use it for our own rituals (as Santo Daime has done)? Will that leave indigenous healers out entirely? Is that a bad thing, or should each culture stick to its own culture?

One thing I’m certain of is that no one is really in charge, no one is in control, and a variety of different forms of ayahuasca culture will emerge, from religious cults to DIY secular libertarianism. Who knows which will flourish and spread. Maybe the medicine knows!

The Transpersonal Revolution: meditation, psychedelics, psychosis

One of the main insights of last year, for me, was that meditation and psychedelics are two useful spiritual practices that work well together. Meditation sharpens certain cognitive and emotional tools (concentration, acceptance, compassion) which help one ride the waves of psychedelic consciousness. It also helps you to integrate the insights you get from your psychedelic experiences, in the weeks and months afterwards, so as to turn altered states into altered traits.

At the ayahuasca retreat I went on in October, at a place called the Temple of the Way of Light near Iquitos, in Peru, we were encouraged to develop our meditation practice in the months leading up to the retreat, and if possible to do a Vipassana retreat. I went on a 10-day Vipassana retreat in 2016, and then a week-long Zen retreat in 2017, and they both really helped me to navigate the stormy seas of ayahuasca.

Even when I was buen mareado (which can be loosely translated as ‘properly mullahd’), I found I could still remember and practice certain spiritual attitudes: sit up straight, focus on your breath, practice self-compassion and acceptance.

At one particularly intense moment, I forgot who I was or where I was, and felt myself adrift in another dimension totally beyond my comprehension (this is quite common on ayahuasca). I had a deep sense of dread, a sense that I was way out of my head and would never come back. But even there, I could still remember to practice my tools. I had two cards I could play: firstly, accept what’s arising, and secondly, remind myself that everything passes. And it did. I came back into my body, remembered my name, remembered where I was and why I was there. 

Psychedelics and meditation are two of the most exciting fields in psychology and psychiatry. Mindfulness, as you know, has become a huge field of research and has transformed western mental health in the last decade. Psychedelic therapy has been tipped as the most promising new development in psychiatry by Tom Insell, the former head of the US National Institute of Mental Health.

Both psychedelics and meditation are rapidly spreading in our culture. Around 15% of Westerners practice some form of meditation, like yoga, mindfulness, Vipassana or Transcendental Meditation. The use of psychedelics is also on the rise – LSD use among young people grew by 175% among young people in England and Wales between 2013 and 2015.

We’re in the middle of not just a ‘mindfulness revolution’ or a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, but rather a transpersonal revolution. The ideas of transpersonal psychology, once considered marginal and kooky, are becoming mainstream, and transforming our ideas of the self, society and reality.

Transpersonal psychology can be roughly defined as the study of human development beyond the everyday ego (hence ‘transpersonal’), including a positive understanding of spiritual experiences (also called peak experiences, transcendent experiences, altered states of consciousness, flow states, self-transcendent experiences and so on). The field is more open to the possibilities of what one encounters beyond the self – the collective mind, spirits, God – and more open to the possibility of life after death.

It began with William James and Frederic Myers in the 1890s, developed with Carl Jung and Aldous Huxley in the 1930s-1950s, and flourished in the 1960s through figures like Abraham Maslow, Stanislaf Grof, Timothy Leary and Ram Dass.

It’s become much more mainstream in academic psychology today partly because neuroscience has given a new credibility to the study of consciousness and to fields like contemplative science and psychedelic science, and partly because baby-boomer hippies and 90s ex-ravers are now in positions of power in academia, and they’re much more open to a transpersonal perspective through their own spiritual practice. 

The transpersonal revolution is transforming our idea of the self. We’re discovering that the self is malleable, as Epictetus put it – we can rewire our habitual beliefs and behaviour through practices.   We’re discovering the importance of focus, attention and acceptance in dealing with thoughts and emotions moment to moment, and the possibility of training attention through meditation. We’re realizing William James was right – rational analytical consciousness is just one type of consciousness among many, and other types of consciousness also have their role and can be helpful in healing and bonding.

We’re recognizing the stable conscious ego is a construction, and that there is much bigger self – largely subconscious – which one discovers through dreams, contemplation and psychedelics. We’re realizing the importance of belief, faith and ritual in unlocking the placebo or ‘healing response’ in the subconscious. We’re realizing the importance of the body in processing, storing and releasing emotions and trauma – mainstream psychology ignored the body for a long time. Yes, the early psychoanalysts talked about hysterical symptoms in the body, but their cure was always talking, not yoga, healing touch, dancing or psychedelic puking. 

Beyond that, we’re moving towards the idea that beneath our transient ego-beliefs there is a luminous open awareness, which we can move into and stay within. And this awareness can be a space of acceptance, equanimity, and love. People seem to reach this space through contemplation, through psychedelics, through near-death experiences. And this space – call it the heart-mind – seems connected to other beings or energies, in ways we don’t yet understand and that don’t fit into materialist psychology.

We’re also realizing that Jung was right – there’s a big Jung revival happening as a consequence of the transpersonal revolution. Jung (and other early pioneers, like Myers and Flournoy) understood how the subconscious speaks through myths, symbols and fairy-tales, which are sometimes shared. He (and others) also understood that not everything in the subconscious is flowers and bunny rabbits. Our constructed egos have a shadow – all the things we think we must hide or repress, all the things we push away and run from in fear and aversion. That shadow comes up in spiritual practices.

In contemplative science, for example, Brown University’s Varieties of Contemplative Experience project has explored the difficult experiences people often encounter in meditation, particularly the return of repressed thoughts and emotions. Psychedelic therapists also routinely draw on Jung’s idea of the return of the shadow.

In both contemplative science and psychedelic science, researchers are finding that Jung was right – the best way to deal with the shadow is through patience, acceptance and compassionate investigation. Rather than running away in terror, we can say: ‘welcome, come in, sit down, let me get to know you’. We remind ourselves of an acronym like RAIN: Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nourish. Then, after a few minutes, years or decades, the unwanted, frightening and daemonic part of us becomes transformed into an ally and helper, just as the Buddha transformed the terrifying snake nagas into his allies and protectors (as in the statue above from Sala Keoku in Thailand). 

But the journey from awakening to integration and realization is no picnic. It’s no walk in the park. Well…it is, but only if we’re talking Central Park at night, filled with zombies and anacondas. The spiritual journey is a journey beyond the ego, a journey through the ego’s death. The shadow is a very good fence holding the ego up – on it is a big sign saying ‘do NOT go beyond here’, and scary monsters jump out at you if you do. Go beyond that fence and your ego screams ‘I’m going to die!’ Which it is, eventually.

The transpersonal revolution is leading to a rise in ‘spiritual crises’

Now here is the key point I want to emphasise. As more and more people meditate and take psychedelics, more and more people are also reporting spiritual or mystical experiences (see the results from Gallup on the right). And some of those experiences will be quasi-psychotic spiritual crises.

We think ‘oh, peak experiences, flow experiences, sure, great, I’ll upgrade myself and become a super-person. Bring it on.’ That’s how our culture thinks of flow states, because we’re so hung up on performance and productivity. And sometimes they’re lovely. But sometimes they’re deeply disorientating, and mess with our normal ego-functioning. And they should!

This much was noted by Ram Dass (or Richard Alpert as he was known at Harvard), who has been so helpful to me and our culture in navigating these waters. He noted, back in the mid-70s, that while more and more Americans responded in a survey that they’d had a mystical experience, the majority added they never wanted another one! ‘They upset the apple-cart of our ordered reality’, he says, in this excellent talk.

The area of spiritual crises was brilliantly explored in a collection of essays edited by Stanslaf and Christina Grof, called Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, which they published in 1989. The Grofs write in the introduction: ‘As various Oriental and Western spiritual disciplines are rapidly gaining popularity, more and more people seem to be having transpersonal crises – yet another reason that the correct understanding and treatment of spiritual emergencies is an issue of ever-increasing importance.’

Spiritual awakenings can involve temporary psychotic phenomena like mania, ego-inflation, Messiah complexes, seeing patterns and significance in everything, intense energy and sleeplessness, physical anomalies like shaking or twitching, loss of critical thinking and a tendency to embrace one’s intuitions as the absolute truth, a flooding of dream-material from the subconscious, the return of repressed trauma, a merging of dream and reality, paranoia and persecutory complexes, and a general disordering of one’s usual reality and sense of the boundaries of the self.

The personal ego is a fiction, but it’s a fiction we’ve clung to all our lives, perhaps for thousands and thousands of lives. Waking up to the emptiness of the ego, the power of the Higher Self, and the interconnectedness of all things can be wildly euphoric, or utterly terrifying.

Contemplative science, which is about 20 years ahead of psychedelic science, is already grappling with this fact. Having gone through a decade of unremitting positivity and hype around meditation (it heals depression, it heals anxiety, it improves productivity etc etc etc), there is now more research pointing out that sometimes, people on retreats have very scary, difficult experiences, which can last weeks, months or years. Psychedelic research is still in the era of unremitting hype (psychedelics can cure depression, anxiety, addiction, improve productivity etc etc etc), and is still somewhat in denial about the dark side of psychedelics. But it’s there.

What I noticed in other participants and in myself, on the ayahuasca retreat, was a loss of the ability to critique or reflect on what the medicine / subconscious was telling us. People became much more prone to unusual beliefs and magical thinking. Our whole model of reality – based around the everyday ego – was dissolved. This was hugely healing, and opened up a joyful vision of interconnectedness, play and even immortality. But people could also believe some crazy stuff.

One of the shaman said to us at the beginning of the retreat: ‘The medicine is a poet, it speaks in metaphors’. But, like fundamentalists, we would sometimes seize on the metaphors presented to us as the actual literal truth. ‘I saw the future, I am the pilot of an interstellar spaceship’. ‘I realized my father isn’t actually my father’. ‘I need to build a giant pyramid in the jungle to communicate with aliens’ (this last one was a vision by an IT engineer called Julian Haynes – he built the pyramid, then it fell down. Classic Werner Herzog stuff. But still, quite a vision!)

These insights might be spiritual metaphors rather than the literal truth.

People often think they are about to die on ayahuasca. This is mistaking temporary ego dissolution for permanent actual death. Or we might even think the world is about to end – again, the psychic and spiritual death-and-rebirth is misinterpreted as a literal apocalypse.

As Chris Kilham, author of The Ayahuasa Test Pilot Handbook, puts it:

Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can deliver positive, transformative benefits. But they can also set the mind afire with lavish, nonsensical ideas. Most common is the notion of discovering that you, yes YOU! will save the planet. You wont. This is just the same old messy messianic thinking that has never worked and never will. For if there is to be a new, more free and conscious world, we will need not one, but several billon messiahs, each selflessly pulling together for the whole of humanity and planetary welfare.

In the meantime, we have only begun to see the Age Of The Kooks. As more people drink ayahuasca, there will be more visionary fallout. People will decide to undergo rapid and regrettable sex changes. They will ink themselves from head to toe, like Rod Steiger in The Illustrated Man. They will bellow revelations from building tops and get whisked away to secure cells. It is all going to happen. In the great and fabulous circus that is the explosion of ayahuasca into the public mind, every freaky, awkward, bizarre and outright nutso scenario that can play out, will.

In my own case, for three or four days after the retreat, when I was travelling on my own in Ecuador, I had the overwhelming sense that I was in a dream. I began to think the external world was being generated by my memory-imagination – the streets, the cars, the other people, the hotel, the sky, it was all my dream. My subconscious was constructing the people, the traffic, the planes, the sky. I didn’t know how to wake up, and how to return to the dimension where my loved ones were. So I travelled back from South America to the UK – a very strange few days in planes and airports. I was amazed at the ability of my subconscious to construct such a vivid reality – the 747 was so big, the KLM air-stewards were so Dutch!

Finally I got home, where my friends gave me a lot of hugs, and within a few days I decided this reality was real. I would still get moments of panic and ontological uncertainty, but I could practice my tools – slow breathing, acceptance, reminding myself that everything passes – and I would calm down and ride the waves. I realized the same spiritual tools worked – focus, acceptance, compassion – no matter how altered my mind or the reality I was in.

What I think happened was I took a spiritual insight – this reality is a dream constructed by our egos – and interpreted it literally – this is all my dream, and no one else is real. I managed to walk through that experience and keep calm. But if I’d panicked, and not had any spiritual training or a community of loving friends to take care of me for a few days, there’s a chance I’d have been sectioned, and even diagnosed as suffering from a life-long biological condition requiring a life-time of medication.

This sort of weird experience provokes so much fear in ourselves and other people. We’ve managed to overcome some of the stigma around depression and anxiety. But psychosis? We still find it terrifying. It is the nightmare Other of our rationalist society. In other cultures, there is still a sense that psychosis can have a meaning and a message for mainstream society, and that it’s a temporary place one may sometimes go to beyond the ordinary ego, rather than a lifetime exile to the rubbish heap of society. In our culture, psychiatry usually denies it any meaning or message, beyond a permanent brain disorder.

We need to have compassion for ourselves and each other, and compassion for those having transpersonal experiences where the boundaries of their ego are temporarily disordered. Such people are unlikely to fit into civilized conventions for a while, and we may need to be patient with them – in my case, for a few days, I literally needed help crossing the road, because I wasn’t sure if the cars were real. Experienced guides can help to steer people through their experiences so that they’re positive. And the rest of us can see these experiences as potentially pointing to something incredibly valuable and true – the ego is a fiction, reality is a hallucination, we are God…or something different to what we think, anyway.

Dougie / Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks – people in transpersonal moments may have difficulty navigating ordinary reality

One of the most interesting people I met this year was someone called Anthony Fidler, who helped to run the Zen retreat I went on in India. I watched him occasionally during the silent retreat, and thought, ‘wow, what a calm, collected person, that’s exactly what I want to be like when I practice more diligently’.

After the retreat, I got talking to him, and heard his story. He’d gone to Cambridge, trained to be an accountant, then had a breakdown, leading to psychotic episodes in his 30s. Over the last decade, he has taught himself to manage his occasional moments of psychosis / unusual states of consciousness through spiritual practices, particularly breath-work, touch practices, and self-compassion. He’s also been helped by leaving the UK and travelling to cultures like India and China, where this sort of spiritual awakening is more accepted and less pathologized by the culture at large. 

Part of the transpersonal revolution needs to be an upgrading of our psychiatric healthcare system and our cultural attitudes so that we have better understanding and compassion for those going through temporary quasi-psychotic / spiritual awakenings, so we don’t immediately section them, pump them full of drugs, and label them as sufferers of life-long biological disorders called things like ‘bipolar’, ‘schizophrenia’ and so on.

Clearly there are some people who have mental disorders that require medication, and some people need to be institutionalized for a few weeks, months or even years for their safety and the safety of others. But psychiatrists have been far too quick to impose their own version of reality onto the most vulnerable people in our society, even though that version of reality is spiritually bereft.

Luckily we are already seeing changes in mental healthcare, driven by the transpersonal revolution. I wrote about some of these changes in The Art of Losing Control, in which I applauded the work of David Lukoff to get a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual called ‘religious or spiritual problem’ – ie a temporary spiritual stage rather than a lifelong biological condition. I applauded the work of the Hearing Voices Network, which supports people who might hear voices or see visions, including many people who are not hospitalized or on medication. I applauded the Spiritual Crisis Network, and the Spiritual Emergence Network, and I urge you all to read Spiritual Emergency by the Grofs.

Meditation, psychedelics, psychosis – the three are linked, all involving journeys beyond the fiction of the everyday ego. You see worried articles in the Daily Mail: can mindfulness lead to psychosis? Yes it can. Psychedelics can also lead to temporary psychosis, and in some sad cases it seems to trigger life-long psychosis in teenagers. However, with care and compassion and wisdom, the majority of these sorts of psychotic experiences can be temporary, and lead to positive outcomes.

The spiritual journey is not entirely safe. It’s not a linear journey into greater and greater serenity and happiness – this is one of the mistakes the West has made by reinterpreting spiritual practices like meditation in terms of this-world happiness. They weren’t designed to make the ego happy. They were designed to transcend the ego. And the ego does not want to be transcended. There’s an enormous amount of fear, clinging, pride and suffering that arises on the spiritual journey. That doesn’t mean we should be put off. If we don’t go on the journey, we’ll still suffer, but we”ll suffer in a circle, pointlessly, rather than suffering while advancing towards liberation. Go forward with boldness and hope, with kindness and humble curiosity.