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Western Values Clash With Ayahuasca’s Spiritual Tradition

The glamorisation of ayahuasca in Western media and the rise in tourism in Latin America has led to the commercialisation of the substance, and the undermining of its spiritual use within the region’s traditional cultures.

Ayahuasca is an ancient form of medicine which contains DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), a powerful hallucinogen found in Amazonian vines that causes psychedelic visions. Ayahuasca has long been used in a spiritual context by Amazonian tribes who believe that drinking this natural brew can induce an altered state of consciousness. Those who consume it, tribespeople believe, are visited by Amazonian spirits which can expel negative energies and heal mental illnesses – but only if expertly guided by shamans. Academic research has unveiled ayahuasca’s potential for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as other mental disorders – such as body dysmorphic disorder and anxiety.

Ayahuasca’s international reputation as an esoteric form of treatment has been on the rise for the past decade, with documentaries recording its history and potential for psychotherapy.  Its exposure has grown with pieces published by trend-setting magazines and celebrities reporting on how ayahuasca has apparently transformed their lives. However, such mainstream coverage often focuses upon the substance’s hallucinatory effect, rather than its ability to offer introspective healing within traditional ceremonies.

This increasingly mainstream and international exposure has led to a boom in ayahuasca’s commerce in the North Amazonian region, but diverging considerably from its traditional use. Professor Dennis McKenna, an ethno-pharmacologist, described the Peruvian rainforest town of Iquitos as the “wild west”; a place where self-defined shamans lure in tourists from the streets, selling concoctions of what they claim to be ayahuasca.

This popularity has proved fatal for some visitors. Traditional shamans ensure that those susceptible to harm from ayahuasca use – primarily individuals with certain psychological or cardiovascular disorders – avoid using it. Reported fatalities are attributed to dubious shamans who execute ceremonies with brews of unknown quality; in 2012, a young man died during a ceremony in Peru, and in 2014, a British backpacker in Colombia died after an unexpected allergic reaction to ayahuasca’s ingredients. A German girl was beaten and raped in Iquitos after attempting to take ayahuasca, but instead being sold another drug that caused her confusion and memory loss.

These fatalities and injuries are just some of the unintended consequences of the commercialisation of a spiritual healing tradition. A reliable shaman and brew are essential for a fruitful and therapeutic ceremony, even in a recreational setting, as the latter triggers the desired mental visionary state, whilst the former can guarantee the safety and guidance of the user. The loss of any of these two pillars of the psychedelic experience may mentally and physically endanger those drinking ayahuasca.

The spiritual use of ayahuasca – a critically introspective experience – cannot be commercialised without corrupting its essence. This Western, capitalist approach has led to sham shamans manipulating their product to behave as powerful hallucinogens – in line with Western expectations, rather than as healing brews.

Many globalised Westerners assume that we can effortlessly immerse ourselves in another culture, participating in it without affecting it. But our desire to experiment with traditions and share them with the world can radically alter their essence. We must ensure that ayahuasca remains in its traditional context so that its cultural identity is preserved. True shamans understand that ayahuasca is a powerful entheogenic concoction that can summon divine entities that cure profound spiritual ailments; this is not a substance that should be simply packaged and sold.

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