Ayahuasca as an agent of social change


Roan Kaufman

Date of original publication

September, 2015

Rak Razam is an experiential journalist, writing about and helping shape the emergence of a new cultural paradigm in the 21st century. Author of the book Aya Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey, Razam also wrote, produced and co-directed the documentary Aya: Awakenings. Rak is also the creator and host of the podcast series In a Perfect World.

RK: What is the vision you are presenting with ayahuasca and with plant medicines?

Rak Razam: When we think of, what is social change? It brings up, for me, questions of what is a society, what is our culture? And, even if you look at the language of a culture, it’s an organism. It is an organism which grows, and is made up in this case of individuals who— Western culture, at least 20th century, 21st century culture, has been very dominated by the idea of the individual. Individuals, in this case, are dominated, to a large degree, by the American dream, or this perception of this capitalist sort of possession of the American dream, into the monetary success story and the taking of resources, and the reinforcement of the ego structure.

And, it is very individualistic in the sense that there is this not-so-invisible hierarchy within that. It takes probably tens of thousands, if not more people, in a hierarchical structure for that person at the top to be the CEO-millionaire-person who has the power and the ability to wield or to manifest that capitalist wet dream. For me, that’s what comes to mind when we think of culture.

When we think of medicine plants and things like ayahuasca and entheogens in general, I come back to some of the most pronounced properties, and there’s quite a few really, in the sense of the ego dissolv- ing or full- spectrum-consciousness revealing, in the sense that it’s not about just this drive of the ego to consume and reinforce and protect and conquer, and that’s dominated culture, as Terence McKenna used to call it. 

It is something for me, having now had almost a decade of experience myself with plant medicines, dogmatic culture feels so wrong. It feels like it is a sickness. It feels like it is something that is reinforcing one aspect of the human organism at the detriment of the whole organism, and also of the whole culture of organisms that make up the human race. The human race as well is just one strand of species within a collective whole, within the Gaian matrix.

So there’s this dichotomy between, I guess, dominated culture and the ego and what we think of as culture and what the plant medicines reveal.

So, when the ego is dissolving—I find in ayahuasca, one of the sort of initiatory-phase responses is this—can be this mental sorting and emotional body information comes up from the unconscious. The unconscious comes up into the conscious mind, and any traumas or hidden issues or things you’ve buried in your psyche come up into the conscious mind to be dealt with, and to be released and resorted and defragged, and in that sorting a full spectrum of information comes up. That’s one layer of the process of releasing the grip of the individual ego. And, in the next layer, quite often I’ll have this dissolution or merging back into the web of life and what’s around me energetically.

With the sensory input, with the sounds of the jungle and nature, there can be this complete merging back into the web of life. So all the signals my brain is receiving, and that’s not just on a mental level, but on a very heart-based level of feeling, this very intricate web of life, and the signals that nature is giving off, and the animals and the wind and the storm. And, sometimes there’s this very Gestalt-type feeling that I’m not just part of all that, but I can reach out energetically and influence all that, just as nature is influencing me. So, there’s this reabsorption back into a larger collective of consciousness, which is nature’s consciousness, and that is a culture, as well.

So, this idea of culture for me is like, what is culture? Even when you look within subcultures, you can see ayahuasca cultures or medicine cultures or Indigenous cultures—they are all subsections. Perhaps in those examples, they all relate to medicine and relating to medicine as it brings them back to the earth and to the planet and into the planetary matrix, and on into the web of life as far as it goes.

But I’m coming to some interesting sort of intuitions and feelings around what we make as a collective when we are on that frequency, when we are tuned in, and even when we’re not tuned in, we’re still all connected. But when we are aware of the frequency of that connection through a rise in consciousness, it doesn’t have to be medicine-mediated. It could be through meditation, it could be through technology with a lot of the neuroscience and EEG technologies and bio- feedback, etc.

RK: That’s on one level, but I don’t think you can say that’s a consistent experience, what you are talking about that’s the potential of the plant to open up to this universe of interconnectedness and healing. But that’s not the case for a lot of people, too. One of the threads of my research is people who work with plant medicines consistently in somewhat of a disciplined way, the result of what you’re talking about, the opening, is there. But other people who just do this recreationally or as a one-off experience, don’t necessarily have that. It might just be a hell night, or it might just be boring, it may just be any number of experiences.
RR: I agree, but the thing is still present and there in potential in situ ready for the seeker who wants to go deeper. It’s the same with other modalities, like sex, you might not achieve the optimal tantric perfection your first go. But if you continue on the path of recognizing energy and recognizing how to work with this energy, you will end up on these very pronounced interior landscapes of the mind, heart, and soul.

So, I think things with ayahuasca, I would say we are sort of in the third wave of ayahuasca usage in the West at the moment. As the first hundred or so years, Richard Spruce, the first botanical expeditions all the way through to about 1990, one of the first Western lodges, Sachamama in Iquitos, the first wave of ayahuasca tourism, and still the early adopters and the seekers. It really has not solidified down to this now sort of lifestyle choice, ayahuasca, sort of cultural uptake where people know about its medicinal qualities and its healing potentials. So, we are in this sort of third wave post-Shimbre, post-that very public ayahuasca death at the center in Puerto Maldonado.

Ayahuasca has become a global brand now. And it has become a global brand in Western culture across the world, and it is known for its medicinal and healing qualities. People are still on the first wave of the psychic journey with it. The reason why it is spreading so rapidly and is so popular and successful—the chief amongst them is that it works, and it helps people come to face their demons and face their health issues and, in some instances, get control of their health and their selves. But for me, that’s just the first leg of the journey. We all need to be cleansed of the things which are blocking our full potential, and then when you go deeper, once you are cleansed, and the organism of the human body and the bioelectric field, and your ability to connect to the higher dimensions, that’s the next level.

And, it transcends the commodification of ayahuasca within the Western culture. Potentially, it opens up the shamanic paradigm or the perception of the shamanic paradigm, within which I mean a living organism and a living universe, back to the archaic sense of Pachamama, and the Indigenous understanding of the world is this living being that we are embedded in, and we need to seek right relationship with. So, I really think this wave of ayahuasca usage we are going through globally at the moment is because so many people are sick from the toxification of Western culture and people need a medicine.

So, at the apex of this sickness, ayahuasca is resurging back into our culture to help rebalance us.

It doesn’t mean necessarily—not everyone has to stay on the ayahuasca path, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that the work is over once the ceremony is over, whether you’ve done one ceremony or a hundred or a thousand. It means the more you plug into what’s really going on here on planet Earth, it transforms you, and then through you, one by one, and transforms the culture. It is not just ayahuasca that’s doing that, I believe it’s the planetary organism, it’s the intelligence of nature, which is alive and well, and is shaping us for the desired result, the optimal result.

RK: I totally hear you. A couple things that you’re saying underline what I’ve been finding about Western hegemony. One of them is the Western belief, of course, that humankind is dominant over the earth, and animals and plants are under the subjugation of human beings. And, when people work with medicine, there’s a complete shift in their relationship with earth and with nature. And, through ayahuasca, you can’t help but think that maybe there is some consciousness to this plant, because it’s so intense and has so many variables and so many flavors of the medicine.

But, at least for me, I think part of the—you used the phrase, “you see what’s really going on.”I think that comes down to criticality, that’s where I—not necessarily in the political sense, but you see the fabric and the workings of the psyche to the point where you are able to be more critical of —not only commodification, but greed, and on some social level, to look at politics differently. A person would then, by extension, look at corruption differently, because it seems completely in contrast to the ways of medicine. That’s kind of hard for me to get my hands around in some kind of scientific sense, or even measurably. However, it just seems to be that way—that people who work with medicine have a different relationship to criticality, in general.

RR: I think it is important you use that word criticality. It is important not to get too daft and woo-woo about things. But what we’re really saying here is we’re bridging paradigms. There are two different paradigms, and they speak different languages. It is like two different parts of the brain, they both might be valid, but you are just looking at them from different perspectives.

It is like that quote from Albert Einstein, I can’t remember the exact words, something like the level of consciousness which sort of causes the problem isn’t going to be the level of consciousness which fixes the problem and gets you out of it. It seems to me that as well as this criticality of looking at all the ills and problems of our culture. I mean, ayahuasca can also be an amazing tool for looking at the human mind itself.

I feel, again, that the process is about getting to know your mind, and getting to know which bits of the ego, and what happens when this energetic pulse sort of drops in and you get all this energy and different aspects of the mind, and the brain start to riff off and go in different directions.

But that criticality can also be applied in ayahuasca sense to knowing yourself, and knowing the brain, and knowing the ego. And, I think that, talking about different paradigms, there is a growing movement, actually. There are so many different strands of ayahuasca culture now that I’m seeing developing. It’s just mutating so rapidly. Basically, I guess it would be interesting to see someone do a dissertation or a comment on the different modalities that have come from the East, like meditation, and yoga, and martial arts, and Tantra, and now ayahuasca, not coming from the East, but from Indigenous cultures, because the vectors and the disseminations, sort of streams, seem to be following very similar patterns, where Western culture takes them on board, and sort through what they think the dogmas are, and they take bits they want, and tweak it and build their own takes on it, which is a natural way of growth and integration into western culture.

But there are things now like “aya-yoga,” which is retreats doing a heavy focus on yoga and ayahuasca, and I think that works really well. These modalities complement very well, as do things like meditation. And, I’ve even seen—there’s a lot of interest in neuroscience, wiring people up with EG helmets now, and trying to look at what’s happening in the brain when people are on ayahuasca.

RK: You should come to my town, that’s where a lot of the brain research is happening with Richie Davidson at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds.

RR: Yeah, I am really getting into neuroscience. I’m working with a few different people, looking at different aspects and documenting and making maps. I am also looking at entrainment with tryptamines in general, through different modalities of tryptamines where they’re legal.

It’s an enormous growth opportunity for phrenology, and we seem to have tangibly tools to look at that criticality. And this is the thing, it’s like all right, we are in a subjective experience. We are seeing a vision of Madre Ayahuasca, or the planet, or a snake or whatever, and we are an emotional experience and we are having these amazing thoughts. It’s all subjective.

And, neuroscience actually says none of its subjective; it’s all some sort of objective brain neuron firing. Technically, maybe they can measure what’s happening in what area of the brain, maybe they can see the electrical impulses. But they don’t know you’ve just contacted your dead mother and she’s forgiven you for that time something that happened when you were 12. It’s these two worlds, and it seems they are being breached.

Basically, what I have come to realize is these substances are catalysts to reveal what we have within us already. The plants are just mediators and teachers for us to remember what we can already do as humans and all these previous cultures have the maps of consciousness to show
us and to remember us. They are boot-strapping up and they are making it happen faster because it seems there’s a bit of urgency on the planet at the moment. But, it’s like we are the actual operating system. We are the operating system to ourselves.

RK: I agree, that’s what’s so good about meditation with ayahuasca that it giving you a grounding in your body and in your own direct experience without it becoming kooky and weird. The only problem, and that’s not the right word—I’ve sat with so many different groups in the United States where that isn’t the case, where there isn’t applied learning. Where there’s sort of “the dark side of the light chaser” kind of thing happening, without any of the depth, and there’s a lot of pushing off of the shadow and pushing off the heaviness of the jungle medicine or whatever. Has that been your experience? Because what you’re describing seems more like a panacea or romanticizing ayahuasca.

RR: The whole thing is to look at the context. As I said, we are in this third wave of Western ayahuasca integration. The first wave was, like, 150 years, the second wave was, like, 20-21 years. Now everything is getting faster and faster. The waves of mutation as it comes in the culture is speeding up. If you look at the whole thing as a process, and not just this happening and this is not good and this is good. It’s all a process, so most people have got the healing, and once they’ve got the healing, there’s different levels of teaching and engagement. And there’s also this mutated different styles of western modalities of entheogens and ayahuasca.

There’s things like (Santo) Daime, which is really great for many people, they like that structure. They are doing a very specific thing with their practice. They are making a Gestalt organism and they are praying and charging up the astral, fighting demons and bringing light. They are not doing healing per se, like on an individual level.

So the Peruvian style, which is probably the most predominant ayahuasca from an Indigenous perspective, even within that, perhaps the Shipibo style, that was originally really focused on healing. And, it came from a lineage where the curandero or shaman originally was the one who drank, and not the patient. And, it was for the ailments of the local Indigenous people, which were often very physical-based and stomach gastro-type things, and there’s bugs that would get in the Amazon, and the ayahuasca would be a physical ailment for that. Or, there was sorcery involved, and the curandero would be sorting out sorcery or bad energy that had been projected around.

But, then as that’s coming to the Western style, the Westerners are seeking visions. What I was first told when I went to the Amazon to research my book, which became the film Aya: Awakenings, many years ago now, was that many westerners coming down to seek the wisdom of the curanderos. They didn’t have a physical sickness. Many people do, and they make the headlines about the healing modalities of ayahuasca, but the vast majority were coming down and seeking visions. The vision seekers— the famous Kyra Salak article, which was in National Geographic in 2006 pointed out, called it “Vision Seekers.” And, it sort of related to this whole ‘60s-generation, psychedelic-psychonaut generation in the West is that we need to see, we needed to see something in a vision to believe it was real.

Even within a psychedelic culture, where it’s all subjective, and there’s not that criticality perhaps of the culture or other paradigms, but even in their culture, they needed to see something to believe in it in that way. That changed the whole dynamic, and then a lot of those streams are still very alive and healthy and well at the moment. Ayahuasca tourism is happening all through Peru and other South American countries. But, there’s that stream. And, then a lot of the people that have been working with the medicine from the second wave have come back to their homes throughout the world and have continued to work with the medicine. There’s been a generation of neo-shamanic facilitators rise up, and some of them have retained the Peruvian style. Many don’t have the training, they don’t have that expertise of decades of experience with plant medicines and the wide spectrum of healing that a curandero would do with not just ayahuasca.

It goes beyond just healing. You have people who have gone back to the West and are practicing. Many people in the West have never been to South America. They have only learned from other Westerners who have been the seeders and the bridges between the two cultures, and there has been a dilution of a dilution of how it’s done. This is a natural transference of a meme and the way it evolves, and it’s all good.

I think we are going to see, even with those people who have stayed on the medicine path, we have rejected what they see as the dogma of the Indigenous approach, if they stay on it and they work with it, the medicine will teach, and it will reboot a depth of quality of interaction and of knowledge.

And, I think we are going to see a generation of Western shamans blossoming over the next few years. We have been and we are seeing that. But what we’re seeing—and I’ve talked to many different ayahuasca commentators about this—what we’re seeing—one of my podcasts with
Dennis McKenna—I think we called it “Globalhuasca” talks about this whole idea, that basically we are in the third wave of western ayahuasca usage.

And, somewhere towards the maturity of this wave, I think what we will be seeing is not just the establishment of not just the lodge system, which is established at the moment, but more like a monastery system, more like a thing where those people who have been on the path for quite awhile go, “I can’t just keep going back recreationally, I need a longer immersion in the knowledge and in the plant world.” And, if you can’t do that in Peru, we are going to see that in the west. You are going to see systems of support spring up which are for long-term plant medicine Jedis who are training, really.

This is what I’m getting at, is that basically, then that level of just going for healing or just going for whatever they are at now, it’s a process, and where it’s a long game. It’s playing a long game, and this is how it transfers the knowledge of plant medicines and not just ayahuasca, but what ayahuasca is spearheading which is a planetary resurgence and reintegration of plant medicines which connect to the planetary intelligence, and plug us back into right relationship, hopefully.

RK: But that learning and that knowledge transfer is different. I have spoken to people, however, who have taken crash courses in ayahuasca shamanism and come back acting like they are experts. It seems like there is an arrogance about it and a danger, because they are bringing people into ceremony and they are doing heavy, dark shit with no sensitivity to how it’s being received and no experience with working with people in that vulnerable state. I think what you are saying is true, it’s a work in progress—but I don’t know if you see what I see, if you have these experiences of meeting people, the arrogance and sort of the danger that they pose in the ceremony world.

People quit their jobs and, again, I’m critical of the commodification and the materialism, and people who quickly claim, “I’m gonna move to Peruand become a famous shaman.” They have one vision and they think they are God’s gift to everything, and there’s a lot of danger.

RR: Any modality that has survived the test of time—like a spiritual modality, body modality or martial arts or meditation or yoga—it’s because they transmit and accuracy of this is how it must be done and you’re not meant to deviate from it. And different modalities mutate and they can improve upon or extend, but there’s a core set of rules that have been created for a reason, and then it’s the integrity of that transmission that allows it to actually survive. If it becomes dissolute and weakened and watered down for the reason to pander to consumerism or whatever, then it’s not really satisfying, usually, its core reason for being. I would think that that’s part of the structure.

If you look at memes and genes, if you look at the thing which is being transmitted, the structure of itself has integrity as it replicates from one generation to the next. I would hazard a guess that a lot of spiritual modalities and the things you have to do are to instil focus and to instil a rigor of discipline which is needed for the adept. And, that discipline is largely lacking from Western society across the board.

Many new people are coming—the entry point for them and their level of consciousness or what their expectations are. Ayahuasca is getting a lot of press—it was in the New York Times like six months ago, or something, in the Lifestyle section. It is a fad thing for a lot of the cool sort of frequency, or the consciousness festival, Burning Man, LA crowd. There is an expectation around that, again, which is not what the medicine is. You take this thing—it’s the newest thing. You take this thing and it does this.

As we know, with ayahuasca, you take that thing, and it freaking opens you up. It challenges you and it says, now you have got to do this work with me. It’s about you doing the thing, not ayahuasca just doing it for you. It is engaging you in a process of healing and discovery. It is taking you to the mat. Just like the teacher would do with you on the outside. As a teacher plant, and this is what they would call them in Indigenous cultures. These are the teacher plants. And, teachers sometimes have to be hard on the students.

And, I think for the commodified level of ayahuasca in the culture that is wanting it just as the latest thing, they just don’t understand that level of what it is, of the teacher plant. They think of it like, it is a drink, you take it, and it does this. But, they are not tuning in yet to this thing that you are going to get your ass kicked. You’ve got to do hard work. It can be the hardest work ever. And, it’s asking you to do that. And, if you don’t do that, you just go around in loops and loops and loops until you are ready to do the work. So, there are different levels of expectation that need to be looked at, as well.

This interview was published in the anthology: Ayagogy: Ayahuasca as a social change agent and learning model