Evolver Network Director Magenta Imagination Healer interviews author, filmmaker and new-wave entheogenic explorer Rak Razam on the western ayahuasca movement and the re-emergence of global shamanism. Here they talk about Razam’s recently re-released book, Aya Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey and the film adaption due out Jan 2014, and what the reclamation of entheogenic shamanism means to Western culture in general as it engages with indigenous wisdom.
Channelling the plant spirit through the arts
Rak, you wrote a book on ayahuasca, shamanism and the gringo tourism going on with it. Do you feel like you channel the plant spirit through writing and the arts? And do you think that goes on in addition to the actual circle where drinking the medicine happens?
Rak: Thanks Magenta, that’s a good question. You know, I think that in general in the western understanding of shamanism we inherited this idea of the psychopomp, or the traveler between the worlds, as well as the healer. In the Amazonian tradition the curandero (or as the West would call them, the shaman) is many things and there’s lots of differentiation there.
To a large degree Western culture has extinguished its connection with the planet and with the earth spirits, and with magic. But the tradition of the artist kept alive this flame of connection to soul. And so most writers–and definitely for me as well–when I’m in the creative impulse, I very much feel that it’s a light trance state, a connection to what the imagination really is. Its been limited in recent times in the west; the imagination and the full understanding has come to mean your creative power, your connection to the creative soul. So in general I think when I’m writing, I connect to something larger than myself.
With this book Aya Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey, it’s non- fiction. When I went down to Peru in 2006, I was documenting both my own journey and that of a generation of westerners engaging with plant medicines and learning about the archetype of the shaman. Now usually non-fiction books are a bit more factual, a bit more dry, but what I really found writing this book was that there was such a rich and potent depth to the ayahuasca experience in the Peruvian tradition, that the memoir approach of writing had to capture that as well. Life in Iquitos and around the Amazon jungle is such a different environment that I really opened up to it and drank it all in.
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I was taking so many written notes that I felt what happened at that time was that I was anchoring the experience in words, but I was really engaging with my creative ability and with my empathic ability and my emotional intelligence … to find the right words to anchor the experience on the page. So that’s all in the book, Aya Awakenings, which is now also the film. So as well as commenting on shamanism and channeling plant spirits I do think that the artistic nature of writing is also a conduit point to channel spirit in itself.
When I was in ceremonies with the curanderos, I’d be writing in my notebook, you know, while the candle was still on, and the ceremony was beginning. And then I would still be writing when the lights went out, scribbling furiously in the dark and then recording some bits of ceremony to try to remember enough of the concrete facts to channel, as you say, some of the emotion and the immediatism of what was happening in the ayahuasca experiences into words.
Now the ayahuasca experience is spiritual and it’s cathartic and it’s a ritual and so it can be a very different experience for everyone, but its something that most people would say is translinguistic, or beyond words. But I don’t believe that. I believe we have an eroded sense of empathic spirituality and we need to practise our linguistics and practise our ability to communicate these experiences in words. I think Terence McKenna had this little riff that there’s are all these words for say love, or snow, and if we reduce words down to just one thing we really erode our ability to differentiate the subtle nuances.
In a very similar sense what I learned from the curanderos is not just about ayahuasca– they have the whole jungle as their pharmacy and they know hundreds or thousands of medicinal plants, and other plants. When they look at the jungle, they don’t just see a sea of green–they can see the gradation, they can see all the different plants which they have names for. And in a very similar sense even in the naming, this idea of naming, in their understanding they are not just naming a plant, the plant has a spirit or an ally or an entity within it. So they are seeing this alive landscape of souls in the jungle. So my challenge was to tap into that spirit and that understanding and then anchor that in words. So yes, I guess I was channelling to a large degree, yeah.
A direct connection with language and its creation capacity
Beautiful, thank you, yeah I’ve noticed that as well, that with ayahuasca and other forms of DMT there’s a direct connection with language and its creation capacity that’s not separated… whereas the mind makes linear categories, here you’re one with the spirit of it. And I think it sounds like a lot of English cultures, at least in this current state, are far removed from that…
It’s very interesting that you point that out and I totally agree. Not many people understand that. For me the ayahuasca’s experience is both a spiritual and a mental thing. Quite often what happens, I find, is that the unconscious mind comes into the conscious mind. he barrier that separates the two becomes permeable and so there is a lot of internal processing going on, a lot of thoughts arising. And a lot of healing goes on as those thoughts are sorted through and processed and defragged, basically. It’s like ayahuasca helps defrag the brain and the emotional states stored therein.
Then when you go into the visionary component of ayahuasca, which is basically the DMT load… Well, in essence, to be reductionist about it–some people say that ayahuasca is a delivery mechanism, an oral delivery mechanism for DMT, which is the visionary component. Now DMT is really on the uptake and is very popular in the west.
Erik Davis has a little riff where he says something along the lines that DMT has been around since the 60’s or so, but it’s never really taken off with the counterculture till now. It was too esoteric, too difficult and too out there. But it really seems to resonate with today’s hyperreal modern generation, who basically, are used to a distributed type of consciousness through computers and through non-linear approaches to technology.
We’ve been trained as a culture to come away from that linear approach, where we can multitask, we can have different browsers open, we can be connected with hundreds of people in a social newsfeed at once or we can see at a glance what hundreds of people are up to. I feel we forget the technological revolution of the internet–it’s been built by many people and there’s been a lot of contribution to that–but there was also a lot of synergy between altered states and the computer industry’s foundations in Silicon Valley and the acid revolution, and there was a lot going on that helped ease these ways of being into our culture.
The Erik Davis riff reminds me that technology is essentially our way of getting back to natural states. We’re building a network, a technological network, which mirrors the vegetal network. I quote this concept in the book via a scholar called Roy Ascott, who has his concept he calls the “Three V’s:” validated reality, like the baseline world, virtual reality, and vegetal reality. And we forget that the planet has the original internet.
A few weeks back I sat and did some acaciahuasca, which is plant medicine from the acacia trees, and since then I’ve been having a lot of resonance with trees and been getting some downloads and thoughts about them. I’ve been thinking that if nature is the vegetal internet (or our understanding of the net is modelled on the original, natural Gaian network) then it both contains and trades information. The trees almost feel like– in this language analogy–like servers, where they host information and are trading it amongst the other trees and spirits of nature. I wonder then, what is the code that they carry–is it merely their own genetic code/vibrational code or do they also host other vibrational signatures for the web around them?
Because most DMT that we’re using in the west is extracted from plants and we’re adding it to our own endogenous levels of DMT–it’s almost as if when you go through some of those first visual layers and geodesic patterns, my intuition as a writer and as an empathic sort of connector, tells me they could be the visual signatures, I guess, of the soul or essence of the plants that we’ve extracted the DMT from.
It’s like the portal or the gateway or the wireless network point to log into the vegetal internet. So we’re going through that and seeing their code and the colors and forms, and the DMT connection is non-linear. And it feels to me like we’re being smeared across in a non-linear sense, the vegetal internet of nature. And we’re plugging into what the tryptamine consciousness really is. It’s threaded throughout all nature, and it’s like a net. It allows us to tap into and connect with all the other entities containing DMT on that frequency or that bandwidth.
And it seems we’re ready for it as a culture now because our technologies are paralleling it on the outside. We are almost being groomed for this return to nature, a return to an awareness of what nature really is. The consciousness behind nature that we’re embedded in.
Tourists flying on planes vs. people working with entheogens native to their country
Wow, that was a fun answer, thanks. That makes me think of mushrooms as a mycelial internet–the psychedelic kind as well as the other kinds of mycelial networks– that works to connect trees and transfer signaling between many different organisms in the forest and other landscapes… Now when you were visiting South America writing your book and experiencing ayahuasca tourism and the way it affects the economy there, did you also find it supports the traditions in continuing by making them valuable again? There’s issues around tourists flying on planes with a lot of carbon footprint to that, vs. people working with entheogens that are more native to their country, like mushrooms which grow in many different countries. Do you have a take on that?
Yes, it’s very interesting, I actually just did an interview with a mushroom shaman, a European man the other day who practices legally in his region. And we were talking about this same issue, that you know, ayahuasca comes from the jungle, it comes from South America and these rainforest climates.
Now Westerners have been drawn to ayahuasca and the business of shamanism and it’s not something that can be reduced to a black and white dichotomy of good and bad. On the one hand the indigenous peoples of South America’s traditions were already changing and endangered.
There was a cultural disconnect and the youth of Peru at least, were not taking up these shamanic traditions. What was happening was Western materialism was creeping in, especially around the cities. The indigenous youth just didn’t want to take up the hard and arduous task of becoming a curandero. It’s often a hereditary position where they are singled out from an accident or illness at a young age. But it’s a path of courage and also a path of hardship because you must give up your worldly ways to retain the sensitivity to be able to hear the natural world.
Traditionally the village shaman would be on the edge of the village and he would be in the world but not of it. So when your energy is always amongst the everyday hustle and bustle of the world you become desensitized and not able to hear and feel nature. So, the path of shamanism in its indigenous understanding–and this is sort of contentious, some people will disagree with this, but people on the ground that I’ve talked to, especially around Iquitos, definitely told me that the tradition of shamanism was in danger, there was a disconnect. At the same time along came the Westerners, and they made it valuable, and ayahuasca became a valuable asset.
The thing with Westerners is, they’ve been exploiting indigenous people for hundreds of years. In Peru they had a rubber boom in the early 20th century, they had an oil boom, and now they have an ayahuasca boom. And so, people even with good intentions–the seekers and thrill seekers alike–have gone down to South America with their money, and they’ve gone in and wanted to learn about shamanism and ayahuasca and experience their own healing. It’s all good and well, but what it’s done it’s upset the social apple cart. It’s created this disparity where certain curanderos have lots of money that isn’t being re-distributed through the community.
There’s very established traditions within South American culture of supporting everyone, it’s a very network based ideology. It’s not about hoarding wealth it’s about looking after the family, looking after the tribe, and looking after the locals. So that really upset that social mechanism which really regulated and helped keep the culture cohesive. It also meant it was such a viable profession, that if westerners were coming down and offering potentially hundreds of dollars, which is a fortune for locals, then everyone wanted to be a shaman.
So now what we have in the last five to ten years of this ayahuasca boom, inevitably what happens as with all the other booms, is that it becomes mudded and it becomes really about money to a large degree, and it creates these tensions. That’s all, well, not good and well, but that’s all where it is at the moment. We have a lodge system throughout Peru and South America, and we have westerners going down… It’s also a generational sort of thing and it’s a intercultural teething issue. Because what I also see happening is that this is a movement, and this is a stage in time. So it’s almost like we are seeing the first stage, and now this is like the middle stage, or perhaps the puberty or teenage stage of teething, and of learning the ropes.
At the same time now there are organizations, NGO’s and people who are trying to do good work in this arena in South America, setting up systems like sustainability initiatives so every ayahuasca vine that’s cut down there will be another one planted; having a duty of care and understanding about what the lodge system needs, and what the legal requirements are; what the fail safes are. So there are protocols being put in place which are happening because it has sort of drifted a bit and there’s been some serious issues. But it’s really developing at the best pace it can be developing.
At the same time Westerners are learning about plant shamanism. And a certain percentage of those westerners are drawn to the shaman’s path themselves and are going back to their own countries and are working with medicines, and ayahuasca is being transplanted outside the Amazon to different regions around the world where it can grow.
People are also starting to understand that the planet produces these substances like ayahuasca–basically plant medicines or entheogens or sacraments–all over the place. And it produces them where humans live. It produces entheogens like psilocybin mushrooms, Salvia divinorum, San Pedro cactus, the acacias–there are plant medicines everywhere, and they’re meant to be interfaced with by the humans. They brings us healing on one level, and they also tap us back into the vegetal consciousness of the planet so we find our place in the web of life.
And finding our place in the web of life means were not dis-eased. A lot of the things which cause illness are because we are out of balance (ease). So bringing our consciousness or a vibrational body back into balance will help the physical level as well as help us be in our place in nature’s web. And so I see that ayahuasca is popularizing the entheogenic revival, but at the same time there’s many other plant sacraments which are perhaps more sustainable, and because they’re indigenous to their areas all around the world we should be embracing those as well.
Ayahuasca is reawakening a shamanic consciousness
Do you think it’s a coincidence that ayahuasca is one of the big sources that seems to be reawakening a shamanic consciousness and connection among people, when it’s coming from the rainforest. …which is a major part of stabilizing and balancing the climate, and the atmosphere and water bodies on the planet?
No, there are no coincidences, we know this. Language tells us this–coincidence is just a label we put on things we don’t want to look too much closer at. Here’s the thing, ayahuasca is often said to be the Madre, the mother in the plant world in the Amazonian tradition. But it’s also the spokesperson, so while there are many other psychedelic or entheogenic plants even in the Amazon, ayahuasca has risen to this prominence because it is revered as the great mother in their tradition.
But as well as being a healing agent, if you understand their indigenous cosmovision or paradigm, the whole world is alive and it has entities or it has spirit–it’s an animist type of tradition. Spirit animates everything. So there are spirits in trees, spirits in the ecology, and they interact with each other. So ayahuasca is almost like a spokesperson for the spirits of nature, for nature Herself.
The Amazonian curanderos says that ayahuasca is like a diagnostic tool. Ayahuasca does not simply do the healing itself, they say. Ayahuasca is a purgative on a chemical level; we know that it seems to defrag the body and the mind, and relink up the neural pathways and cleanse at a primal level. On another level the curanderos use it to talk to all the other entities that are in the ecology. They say, so look I have this patient and they have this physical problem, or who’s got a vibrational code for me that would be good to fix his problem, to help cure this disease?
In western understanding we might use the chemicals in plants to fix a physical problem. What the curanderos do… they go straight to the source, they go to vibration. The essence of each thing is a vibrational code and it can be sung into a patient, and then it can fix on a vibrational energetic level the thing which is wrong with the person, and that will manifest on the outside, in the physical body.
So you don’t need to use the chemicals. So ayahuasca seems to be this diagnostic tool which opens up the ability to talk to the rest of the plant world, and on behalf of the Amazon. So it’s no coincidence really, that as the Amazon is endangered on some level by logging and by western capitalism going in and commodification and consumerism, that ayahuasca is also coming out of the jungle.
Interconnection with spirit and planetary wisdom
Do you think there’s possibilities and avenues for that deep understanding of interconnection with spirit and planetary wisdom and plants that are alive conscious co-citizens of the world that we live in, to connect with the western medical industrial pharmaceutical complex? Do you have hope for that bridging?
Well there must be hope, there must be hope. I was talking to Steve Beyer, the author of ‘Singing to the Plants,’ a while back. We were discussing this exact thing, the fact that there’s this medicalization of entheogens happening in the west, which is all good and well, and I support that.
And on the other hand, if you talk to an indigenous person who deals with entheogens and things like ayahuasca, when they say medicine, they say medicina. Their word for it means more than our word for it.
What their word medicine means is not just that is just a chemical…they mean it has a spirit. And when they say spirit, they mean it’s alive, it has consciousness. And the healing happens not just from taking the plant or the medicine on a physical level. The healing happens from engaging in a relationship with the spirit. That’s what the western model lacks. These medicines do work, it’s not that they are not going to work on some level. But we are denuded and we have an eroded connection with the depth of spirit in the western medical model.
So what I hope is happening in the larger cultural evolution is that both East and West, old world and new world are, by engaging with these plant materials revered by indigenous people, learning and sharing. But it has to be done with respect and done in the right way, so it’s not bio-piracy and the like.
The problem is that there is a lock on this whole thing and it’s called capitalism. So if you can’t patent to medicine, and make money off it, they won’t make in medicine. So the problem traditionally is that a lot of these medicines in the indigenous set and setting…don’t have.. they are either in the public domain or in the commons, or they’re things which are protected under legislation in their indigenous countries, so that they’re not able to be patented.
So even though these medicines have proven to be efficacious there’s a problem with capitalism allowing them into the system to be just turned into commodities. So I hope that what’ s happening in the western-medical-Big Pharma-type circles, is that these plant medicines are recognized as viable tools, but there’s also a shift in consciousness with the people that are using them. This is basically what we’re living through is the evolution of western culture. We’re seeing this mash-up happening as the indigenous world and western world becomes one world.
And in that, our idea of medicine, our idea of spirit, our idea of culture is all rapidly changing. So while these things are being absorbed into the west, the west itself is changing very rapidly. And so bigger picture gives me hope there is some type of cohesion and unity and integration of these substances, but not in the way we think it’s going to happen.
What would Earth be like if psychedelic culture became the new mainstream?
Well you know what it would be….you know what is really happening… It’s like Mother Earth is inviting us back to the garden. And the garden has become a lawn with a white picket fence around it. And you know, there’s a road, and there’s a mall, and there’s like a highway on the other side.
And that way of living we all know now, we all know, is not sustainable, it’s not working. It doesn’t work for humans, it doesn’t work for people trying to be communities and engage with each other and be supportive of each other….It’s divisive, it’s unsustainable, and so at the same time, this is what I meant about no coincidence.
We’re talking originally about this idea about linear and non-linear modes of being. The plants as well as being medicines, they’re really tuning us back into this idea of networks and webs and this idea of being embedded in and part of nature. And that is the most beautiful revelation, that we are embraced and we are supported and we are loved by the mother, by nature herself who has birthed us, and we have a role to play.
So she is inviting us back into the garden because the garden is going to grow once more. The garden can only grow once the seeds have been sown and the seeds are being sown in us, in our consciousness. Because once consciousness is brought back into right relationship, then all else will follow from it. We don’t have to reinvent politics, reinvent the mall, reinvent the way we live. We just have to be…. at one with our consciousness in nature. If we reclaim that ability all else will follow, will fall into place.
Because that’s what being human really means.