Amazonian Plant Medicine Use and Abuse in the 21st Century: Is there a force behind this behavior, and might it lead to understanding the resulting need for transcendence through transpersonal consciousness-raising techniques?
"History repeats itself is an old and familiar cliche, but like most sayings that persist through time, it happens to be true. It might be asked, though, how exactly does it happen that history repeats itself? If life on this planet takes place in totally random fashion, then trends, ideas, and behaviors should occur at random, with very few repetitions of previous ones. However, things are not that way.
Our ancestors, perhaps because they did not have the Internet or a 24/7 "news cycle" to distract them, looked for answers to the question of how and why patterns repeat, and frequently, why they occurred to begin with. There was always an eye to some sort of transpersonal force, a God of some kind, that in their collective perception must have been behind all the happenings on earth. Many times, when this collective eye was turned toward supernatural forces, it gazed at the celestial bodies that surround this planet. Indeed, it is difficult to look at a sparkling night sky and not be in awe, and feel assured that there might be some kind of force beyond our understanding that put all those glimmering lights there. It isn't unreasonable to believe, furthermore, that this force holds everything together, and that there might even be plans to ensure that we remain under its watchful, caring influence.
As our ancestors observed how the movements of celestial bodies affected life on earth, they created a system of explaining why things occurred, and then, after much observation and mathematical calculation, how to predict when they might happen again. This art and science known as astrology has origins which stretch back to the beginning of time. Virtually every civilization has stories and lore that correspond to the patterns that planets and stars make in the sky. The premise underlying nearly all astrology is that unseen forces emanating from celestial bodies have effects on the creatures and events on this planet. As time has passed, astrology has become more widely known as a means to understand one's personality and to detect the celestial "weather" that looms in the future. As a person who has practiced and observed astrology for more than 35 years, I can attest to the fact that there is much more to it.
Mundane astrology, the study of how astrology affects world events and society as a whole, takes what we know as "horoscopes" to a different level. In the past as it is now, mundane astrology is used mostly by academically-oriented astrologers who use this study of the cosmos to observe societal trends and geopolitical events.
When astrologers observe societal trends, they will look to the "outer" planets, those that are more distant from the sun than are Earth and its nearest neighbors, for indications of what might occur in any given time period. Planets on the outer edge of this solar system, such as Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Pluto tend to influence generational proclivities and events that shape history. This is how trends in society can be observed through the lens of cosmic influence, and why, when I noticed an uptick in recent years toward an increased use of hallucinogenic "plant medicines" by a growing number of people, I looked to the sky to see if there was an explanation.
It turns out that, during the years 2013, 2014, and 2015, two of the "outer" planets, Uranus and Pluto, had been creating a 90-degree angle in the sky (Michelson, 1990). In astrology, this is known as a square. This is a time when the interaction between the forces represented by the two planets are "testing" what was brought on when they were in conjunction, or in the same place in the sky at the same time.
The last time Uranus and Pluto were in conjunction was a period that extended through 1965 and 1966 (Michelson, 1990). At the time, there was most decidedly a surge of use of hallucinogens by laypeople, particularly LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, and peyote. Marijuana use became very widespread, too, but its effects have never been as intense as these drugs. Because hallucinogens gave people an easy way to see the world beyond the confines of what most assume to be reality, a revolution of consciousness ensued. The influence of the psychedelic experience crept out from the top-secret Army and Navy intelligence labs where they were first tested, then on to college campuses, and eventually even high schools. Popular music and art was permeated with swirling, brightly colored visions of the world, at least in the form it took through the inner eye of the person influenced by these hallucinogens. People began speaking about love and peace, and a certainty that there should be no war, because we are all one. Ultimately, the word "psychedelic" became a term most people used, or at least understood.
Uranus usually brings on new and revolutionary ways of looking at the world, and Pluto is often responsible for trends that transform the human experience by exposing parts of consciousness that would otherwise be unseen. The old is torn down to make room for the new. In relatively recent history, for example, the Uranus-Pluto conjunction of 1710 brought the invention and deployment of the first steam pump, to work a mine in England. By the time the square took place in 1755-1756, the Industrial Revolution was beginning to emerge as a sweeping trend, the African slave trade was at a heinous height, and the French and British squabbled over territory in the New World during the French and Indian War. In this Uranus-Pluto cycle was the beginning of industrialization and some of the cruel byproducts of exploitation of resources, human as well as material. The next conjunction of Uranus and Pluto took place in 1850. That was the year Karl Marx published The Communist Manifesto. During the year 1876, the time of the first square between these two cosmic titans, labor unions were rising. There were violent uprisings such as the Homestead Steel Strike and Pinkerton Rebellion near Pittsburgh. The Amalgomated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers was founded, as were the Workingman's Party (later the Socialist Labor Party) and the Greenback Party (a group of anti-monopolists). This cycle seemed to be a counterrevolution to the previous one, introducing a more collectivist state of mind in society. Note that there are two more times during the full cycle that these planets interact, when they are 180 degrees apart (in opposition) and when they are again 90 degrees apart, in the "final square," as the full cycle comes to a close. For the purposes of this study, analysis will be restricted to the conjunction and the first square.
It is rather obvious these two planets were working together during their conjunction in 1965 and 1966, and the influence of this planetary surge of energy had profound effects on society. The popularization of LSD use was promulgated by various advocates, and documented by the publication of myriad journalistic pieces. In Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, the antics of the "Pranksters", a group led by author Ken Kesey, was recounted. This group of LSD advocates literally held parties around the country where the drug was freely distributed to people who had not tried it before. Eventually, due to pressure from the authorities, Kesey publicized his affirmation that he had "graduated" from LSD, and recommended that others do the same and stop using the drug (Wolfe, 1968).
It might not be the case that people totally stopped using hallucinogenics after this era passed, but the mind-altering substances that were in wide use after that, including cocaine, marijuana, and ecstasy (MDMA), did not provide the same kind, or as extreme, an effect as did the hallucinogens that were so popular in the 1960s and early 1970s.
As the square between Uranus and Pluto exerted its influence between 2012 and 2015, a new kind of desire to expand the human experience was increasingly satisfied through the emergence of plant medicines normally used in ancient ceremonies developed by the peoples of the Amazon. In an article written in September of 2016, Ariel Levy quotes self-help guru Tim Ferris as saying, "Ayahuasca is like having a cup of coffee here... I have to avoid people at parties because I don't want to listen to their latest three-hour saga of kaleidoscopic colors." A researcher at the University of Washington's School of Medicine said "on any given night in Manhattan, there are a hundred Ayahuasca 'circles' going on" (Levy, 2016, p. 30).
The use of Ayahuasca, as well as Kambo, also known as Sapo, or "frog medicine," has spread quite handily, possibly as an echo of the 1960s psychedelic revolution as projected by the cosmic pattern between the planets Uranus and Pluto. It is also interesting to note that the first subjective description of an Ayahuasca experience by an anthropologist was published in 1968. Could it be that the "seed" for this surge in the use of Ayahuasca and Kambo was planted when Uranus and Pluto began their current cycle in the 1960s? I believe so.
Still, this does not mean that taking psychedelic drugs is the only way to answer the call to transcendence. I receive at least one invitation each month to partake in "plant ceremonies" of different types. As a person who has been in recovery for over 33 years, I am not inclined to indulge in any substance that could chemically alter my state of consciousness and/or lead to dependency or addiction. However, this trend has made me extremely curious about these plant medicines, the original use(s) for which they were intended, how they are taken outside their original geographic area and cultural context, and how well people understand the effects, both beneficial and potentially deleterious.
What Is Plant Medicine, and Why Is It Used?
Plant medicines, in indigenous cultures, can be used by the healer, or shaman, to go into altered states of consciousness to make it possible to have visions that divulge remedies for the ailments of the people who come for help. In South America, Ayahuasca is the one that is most commonly used, and the most familiar to people from outside the indigenous Amazonian community.
Ayahuasca is prepared as a tea, extracted from the Banisteriopsis cappi vine, chacruna leaves, and various tree barks. The shaman uses Ayahuasca to "see inside a person and tell what is wrong," according to one shamanic healer. He asserts that Ayahuasca can produce visions that include things such as "boats, planes, people, spirits...". He adds that he talks with them and they tell him things. The spirits might be dead family members or old friends. Some are ancient ancestors, some are plant spirits. Some are good, and some are not. He concludes his description to some outsiders who were about to try Ayahuasca for the first time by saying, "If you get afraid, you must remember that. They are only spirits" (Gorman, 2010, p. 26).
Over the last several years, however, as curious Americans and other outsiders have found their way to the Amazon and the land of plant medicine, the shamans are not the only people who partake in "sacred" plant medicine ceremonies. Now, these substances are commonly taken by curious tourists, whether they know the first thing about being a shaman or not.
The American researcher Peter Gorman saw quite a lot more than a few spirits when he initially partook in Ayahuasca. At first, he noticed the taste, which was not very pleasant. In fact, he characterized it as "acrid and awful and almost impossible not to spit out" (Gorman, 2010, p. 30). After drinking the tea, the shaman instructed him and the others that were gathered to sniff the vapors from a bottle of camphor and gasoline. This was done to protect them from evil spirits. Mapachos, a special type of tobacco, was passed next, and everyone in the circle smoked it.
After some time, usually about 20 minutes, Ayahuasca will promote a purging effect. The toxins in the liquid cause the stomach to cramp, and its contents inevitably are expelled. After vomiting rather violently, Gorman describes having a vision that allowed him to see the world from the view of a bird. He says he had the experience of being that bird and catching a fish. After that, he sensed he was "traveling" back to his apartment in New York, where he "saw" the two friends to whom he had sublet his apartment, sitting and reading. Later, he was able to verify another perception he had while under the influence of Ayahuasca--that they had rearranged the living room furniture.
After this, he says he had the sensation of seeing a tree as if he were looking at it through the wrong end of a telescope. He could see thousands of ants moving on the bark, in so much detail that he could count the usually microscopic hairs on their legs. Variously throughout his experiences with Ayahuasca, Gorman describes seeing geometric shapes in bright and multiple colors, and having improved night vision (Gorman, 2010).
Ayahuasca contains DMT--N. N-dimethyltryptamine--as it is found in chacruna leaves. If one were to ingest just the leaves, there would be no effect, as an enzyme in the human gut, monoamine oxidase, breaks it down before it can reach the blood. When mixed with the B. cappi vines used in the psychoactive mixture used by shaman and non-Amazonian ayahuasqueros, however, potent mono-amine-oxidase inhibitors (MAOI) prevent it from being broken down. This allows the DMT to access the human brain in greater quantities than exist naturally in the human body.
DMT is a hallucinogenic substance, and it is illegal in the United States. It is classified as Schedule 1, meaning that it is considered to be at high risk of being abused, and possibly dangerous, with no therapeutic benefits. While it may be somewhat dangerous when it is misused, there have been studies that suggest that there can be therapeutic benefits. Various researchers have studied a Brazilian religious group, known as Uniaodo Vegetal (UDV), and found that people who have used Ayahuasca in the context of religious rituals have found not only peace and a feeling of oneness with all humanity (Barbosa, et al., 2009), but also relief from such disorders as depression, addiction, and alcoholism. Patients speak of encounters with "Grandmother Ayahuasca," or simply "the plant," both of which show people how they have been trapped by their maladies, and how they can choose to live life in a different and more productive way (Harris, 2017).
Direct communication with the spirit of the plant is frequently reported by those who use Ayahuasca. Jeremy Narby, an anthropologist who studied plant medicine in the Amazon from the mid-1980s, postulates that the plant could not only open up one's inner sense of being, but also impart information about the purpose of all medicinal plants, by speaking directly to the person who has ingested Ayahuasca. Furthermore, he wondered, "What if it were true that nature speaks in signs and that the secret to understanding its language consists in noticing similarities in shape or form?" (Narby, 1999, p. 44). This question becomes extraordinarily interesting in Narby's work. Through considering the serpent, which is frequently "sighted" in visions during Ayahuasca ceremonies, he noticed how the symbol of the serpent is used to show the division between the right and left brains in many cultures. From that, he drew some fascinating conclusions about the nature of DNA, which is also shaped very much like a snake. After observing shamans and their use of crystals, Narby began to see a connection that leads him to believe that it is possible for quartz crystals to be used as a way to "communicate" with DNA, through the stimulation of photons (Narby, 1999).
Narby's writings are thought-provoking and more coherent than they might sound in this summary, which must remain truncated in order to allow the scope of this paper to remain reasonable. The point of sharing Narby's ideas here is to demonstrate that there can be some extremely creative and insightful results from the experience of taking plant medicine. However, it also seems that some sort of controlled environment is necessary in order for most people to have a sound, safe, and beneficial experience.
Even ardent proponents of Ayahuasca use state that it is important to pay attention to the rituals surrounding the ceremony. If there is to be a positive effect from the ceremony, it is believed that everything from planting, tending, harvesting, cooking, and drinking must be done with a sense of intention (Harris, 2017). The sacred ceremony that surrounds the use of Ayahuasca by Amazonian shamans involves healing that is aimed at recovering the loss of the patient's soul. The shaman uses the plant medicine in order to go on a journey to find the person's soul and return it to the place where it belongs. If an evil spirit is discovered to be present, the shaman then removes it through some sort of suction. The plant medicine is used in order to put the shaman into an ecstatic state that permits the kinds of visions and perceptions needed for working with the patient's spiritual needs (Eliade, 1964). It has not traditionally been handed out to every person who would like to be treated to an Ayahuasca-enhanced journey. Even when an initiate is being trained to be a shaman, there are specific procedures and purposes to the Ayahuasca experience.
The neophyte's psychic voyage does not lead him into a dimension where he has to confront spirits or initiatory demons, nor does he receive secret messages. During his trance, the initiate is expected to become aware of his existence, to meditate, and to watch his own reactions to the various drugs he ingests. The entire sequence is described as an ecstatic metamorphosis, a dream world of colors and shapes, projected by an intoxicated mind." (Reichel-Dolmatoff, 1997, p. 147)
The reason for this protective attitude toward initiates becomes clear when some of the less-than-idyllic stories of Ayahuasca experiences are considered. While there has been some evidence, as stated earlier, that Ayahuasca can benefit people who suffer from depression and Type 2 alcoholism, which is associated with violence, things don't always go so smoothly. There have been instances of Ayahuasca being spiked with drugs (datura, for instance) that create confusion and potentially incite violence. In addition, people who take Ayahuasca, because it already contains MAOI, can suffer from what is known as seratonin syndrome. The simultaneous blocking of serotonin uptake and serotonin degradation sends what amounts to an overdose of this neurotransmitter into the blood. This causes severe shivering, diarrhea, hyperthermia, heart palpitations, possible muscle rigidity, and in extreme cases, death.
Even without the physical dangers, the experience presented by Ayahuasca can introduce people to a very up-close and personal idea of their own death. This can happen because it appears that while influenced by Ayahuasca, the brain's default-mode network, which is responsible for one's usual patterns of thought, is temporarily relieved of its duties. The thalamus, which can bring to awareness "the meaning of life," takes over. People begin to see how we are all one, and there is a profound perception of harmony and interconnection with the universe (Levy, 2016). While much of these experiences can be pleasant, when deep material about the nature of one's birth and death arises, it is probably not advisable for the person to be too far away from a professional who might be able to help the individual make sense of it.
What are the effects of Ayahuasca on the brain, and what would "Ayahuasca therapy" look like?
Going deeper into detail about how Ayahuasca affects the brain illustrates some of the reasons behind the dramatically improved mood and changes in cognition many users feel. DMT and harmine, the psychoactive substances found in Ayahuasca, affect the serotonin system by binding to serotonin receptors in the brain and stimulating them. This effect in the brain occurs with LSD and psilocybin as well. Some speculate that, in addition to these brain-centered effects, Ayahuasca also works on serotonin receptors in the "gut," or intestinal tract. This enteric nervous system can help to determine moods and patterns of eating and other behavior. Whether through the brain or the intestinal tract, Ayahuasca is a nonspecific catalyst. It reduces defenses and amplifies unconscious material by the process of suppressing the normal waking consciousness state and allowing the activity within the thalamus to arise.
The range of experiences one can touch upon in even just one Ayahuasca ceremony is quite broad. It might include
personal childhood history, family history and secrets, past-life narratives, perinatal memories, cathartic expressions of emotion with or without content, ancestral history, trauma, shamanic experiences, out-of-body flights, initiation or dismemberment, energetic healing and surgery, ego death and rebirth, archetypal figures or landscapes, animal allies, mystical experiences, visionary and prophetic revelation, encounters with nonhuman entities (such as from other planets or civilizations), cosmic travels through the brilliant darkness, contact with spirits, encounters with the numinous, conversation with dead loved ones, concrete advice from Grandmother Ayahuasca (a personification of the spirit of this mixture), noetic downloads, personal healing, ecological awakenings, and mythopoetic realms. (Harris, 2017, p. 206)
A very recent study published by the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme even claims that when two of the more prominent alkaloids found in Ayahuasca, harmine and tetrahydroharmine, were placed into a petri dish with hippocampal brain cells, the cells developed into neurons at a surprisingly rapid rate (Ketler, 2017). There is no guarantee, of course, that any of these psychedelic or miraculous growth experiences would occur at all, whether in a petri dish or, especially, inside an Ayahuasca user's brain. So much of the effect depends on the individual person, as well as the strength of the dose that is being administered. It is important to note, also, that special skills must be applied if a therapist begins to work with a patient in the psychedelic realms, such as would be the case when using Ayahuasca experiences to induce the discovery of unconscious material. Inquiry about material beyond the psychological realm, including somatic aspects, as well as emotional and spiritual ones, would be necessary. There might be times, such as when a patient says s/he has had a communal experience with the divine, that it is best for there to not be too much intervention. Harris advocates for the inclusion of expressive arts in the process, rather than verbal processing of every last detail (Harris, 2017).
Distortion and Abuse of Plant Medicine
Whether Ayahuasca can be used totally safely as a therapy drug remains to be proven. Meanwhile, as its use proliferates, there have been many reports of abuse of both Ayahuasca and the ritual that has been built around it for eons. The word shaman is being thrown around very freely, and used to identify people who probably do not have the training or deserve the respect that the term confers. Often, they take on the title after some cursory training they may have received, sometimes in the Amazon region, and sometimes in their basements or back yards. The Ayahuasca-based tourism industry in Peru has multiplied by many factors, just in the last few years. One local remarked, "It reminds me of how they sell cocaine and marijuana in Amsterdam. Here, it's shamans and Ayahuasca" (Hearn, n.d., p. 2). The result of this tourism boom has been the proliferation of use, much reported sexual abuse on the part of the "shamans", and even a few deaths resulting from unsafe practices such as administering Ayahuasca to persons suffering from cardiac conditions (Hearn, n.d.).
The proliferation of questionably-credentialed shamans has probably occurred because, as stated earlier, DMT is an illegal substance. Using the drug under the auspices of "religious practice" makes it seem somewhat more sheltered from the long arm of the law. Arrests are not frequent, as it seems the DEA and other enforcement officials have more serious business to deal with than arresting Ayahuasca users and their so-called shamans. People have begun to cultivate the plants in just about any tropical area that will grow it as well, with Hawaii being a particularly prolific spot. However, because it is so extreme in its effects, with projectile vomiting and profuse diarrhea being the rule and not the exception, it is possible that not everyone will be ready to try it. Still, it seems that a lot of people have--and still do so--on a regular basis (Zaitchik, 2013).
The result has been an extensive scene around Ayahuasca ceremonies, far from the Amazon, and often in the most unlikely spaces. Yoga studios, community centers, public meeting rooms, and of course, those basements and back yards, have been converted to shamanic "healing" centers. While visiting Arizona, for instance, I encountered a man who ran a center where presentations about yoga and other esoteric arts are given. He described how, just a few days before my visit, the carpet had been covered with a tarp because they had held an Ayahuasca ceremony over the course of two days in the main room. Thirty people, he told me, were in attendance. They also held "frog ceremony," he added. Ayahuasca, it seems, is not the only medicine people have been turning to, perhaps in response to the heavy cosmic energies that have been influencing planet Earth.
Kambo: "Frog Medicine" as Spiritual Initiation
Kambo, a poison extracted from the skin of a particular Amazonian frog, is not technically "plant medicine," but it is used in a similar fashion to Ayahuasca, and its use among non-indigenous people has become maybe even more widespread. This medicine has been used in the Amazon over the ages so that hunters could
... attain a vision of their prey... folklore has it that the frog's defense mechanism is able to give superhuman strength, foster a stoic attitude towards hunger and pain, and for a rare few, conjure up psychedelic visions... these visions come up in their dreams. (Schirp, n.d., p. 4)
Kambo is extracted from American neotropical dendroband frogs, especially South American budonid frogs, as well as others from various parts of the world. The active ingredient is Pumilotoxin-B (PTX-B). It is an alkaloid that affects the cardiovascular system, the Central Nervous System, and neuronal preparations. Users also experience very strong effects on the intestines. It operates in a postganglionic, pre-synaptic manner, indicating that it can interfere with the normal processing of nerve signals. Researchers found that no compound, other than PTX-B, displays these striking effects on the amine pump of sympathetic nerve terminals through a voltage-dependent, reversible activation of ionic channels (Severini, et al., 1998).
The frog's excretions contain dozens of bio-active peptides, which act like keys that unlock certain chemical reactions in the body.
Hunters use Kambo in the Amazon because it is believed that a large enough dose of the substance can allow the hunter to project his anima or spirit to his trap while he sleeps. The anima can supposedly take the shape of the animal the hunter wishes to trap, and lure it as though it is being drawn toward a mate (Gorman, 2015).
Taking Kambo, like ingesting Ayahuasca, involves having a vessel capable of holding copious amounts of bodily fluids within easy reach. To begin with, the participant in "frog ceremony" is given around two liters of water to drink. This means that, once the poison takes effect, the purging of bodily fluids will flow much easier. After the water is consumed, the "shaman" uses a stick of wood (often bamboo or Palo Santo) that has been lit and is still smoldering to burn holes in the skin. After the skin is burned (anywhere from 10 to 100 times), the dead skin is scraped away roughly with a damp cloth. Then, the medicine is applied to the wound. This, of course, will leave scars on the hands, leg, lower arm or shoulder. These are external "signs" that the animal power of Kambo has got hold of a person. Said person is supposed to look to the scars as reminders of the ensuing experience.
Between the burns and the huge amount of water ingested, the stomach can begin to enter a state of queasiness, even before the poison is applied to the skin, where it will ultimately be absorbed. As stated earlier, the peptides contained in Kambo unlock a series of chemical reactions. Here is a list of those that have been thus far identified:
* Anenoregulin - acts on adenosine receptors
* Dermaseptin - a potent antimicrobial for both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria
* Dermorphin - a potent mu-opioid receptor agonist
* Deltorphin - a very potent delta-opioid receptor agonist
* Phyllomedusin - a tachykinin which affects the salivary glands, tear, ducts, intestines, and bowels; it contracts the smooth muscles, and contributes to the violent purging
* Bombesin - stimulates gastrin release
* Phyllokinin (and phyllomedusin) - potent blood vessel dilators that also increase the permeability of the blood-brain barrier
* Phyllocaerulein - stimulates the adrenal cortex and the pituitary gland, causes a fall in blood pressure accompanied by tachycardia, has a potent action on the gastrointestinal smooth muscle, and stimulates gastric, biliary and pancreatic secretions
* Sauvagine - causes a long lasting fall in blood pressure, intense tachycardia, and stimulation of the adrenal cortex
The internal physical effects will be felt right away, and then the next layer kicks in. The likely results include a swollen neck, a pounding headache, and puffy eyes. Breathing can become difficult. As the heart rate increases and the Kambo user begins to sweat profusely, the convulsions begin and so does the purging. Bile and other substances of varying colors come out, along with the water, of course. The person in charge of the ceremony administers additional water, and more bile arises just before the wave of diarrhea arrives. The purging, by this and most other accounts, seems extremely unpleasant. However, there are some physical and psychoactive effects that are reported to be beneficial. The purge "detoxes" the body to some degree. There can be a sense of well being that arises, and also a feeling that one can overcome fear. For that reason, Kambo is often used prior to partaking in more adventurous ceremonies, such as Ayahuasca or iboga (Schirp, n.d.).
At other times, Kambo can be used after the Ayahuasca ceremony. In his description of such an experience, McMahon describes the feeling, having been given Kambo in-between two Ayahuasca ceremonies, of being "microwaved, roasted from the inside", and then goes on to describe the unpleasant purging experience, and his eventual decision to eschew further adventures with Amazonian plant medicine (McMahon, 2014).
Gorman's experience with Kambo was somewhat more specific, and speaks to evidence of the more psychoactive qualities of the frog poison. After describing the same physical effects of the sources cited above, he says of his first experience,
Then, unexpectedly, I found myself growling and moving about on all fours. 1 felt as though animals we passing through me, trying to express themselves through my body. It was a fantastic feeling, but it passed quickly, and could think of nothing but the rushing of my blood, a sensation so intense that I thought my heart would burst. (Gorman, 2015, p. 15)
He reported that later, after having passed out, waking up to find he had been put into his hammock. At that point, he noted that all of his senses seemed to be enhanced. This, perhaps, is one of the reasons why hunters have traditionally taken Kambo. With their senses heightened, they would have a much better chance of achieving their goals. Gorman says the effects lasted for a few days (Gorman, 2015).
Kambo is perhaps less potent in a psychedelic sense than is Ayahuasca, but it is no less ubiquitous. In the foreword to Peter Gorman's book about Kambo, Morgan Maher asserts,
If Ayahuasca is swimming in the rivers, lakes, dreams and streams of contemporary culture, then the frog is perched on a branch overhanging the water's edge. Waiting and watching, its tadpoles dropping from a jell-leaf-nest, into the current below, into our blood stream. (Gorman, 2015, v.)
I have had even more invitations to partake in "frog ceremony" than urgings to try Ayahuasca. Again, my experiences as a person in recovery are enough to prevent me from delving into a direct experience with these substances. There is something else that inspires me even more to look for transcendence from different sources, though. That is the possibility of achieving the same or similar results with regard to transcendence, spiritual experience, and insight, without going through the pain, suffering and risks of ingesting these preparations. I believe that the techniques of Transpersonal Psychology, especially breathwork, but even meditation and hypnosis, can provide the seeker with the information that is possible to retrieve from a plant medicine ceremony with far fewer physiological, social, and psychological ramifications.
Transpersonal Psychology: Living beyond Daily Life
The parallels between the goals of shamans and hunters (both genuine and self-appointed) with Ayahuasca and Kambo, and the results that can be attained through working with transpersonal psychology, are quite easy to see. Hartman and Zimberoff put it this way:
The transpersonal therapist is guide and companion to his/her client on their healing journey. It is, in fact, "their" journey, client and therapist, because each one's deeply held beliefs can either limit or liberate their common course. It is the client's responsibility to determine the direction, extent, and pace of his/her own healing and growth. It is the therapist's responsibility to encourage without bias, to participate fully without attachment to outcome, and to be meticulously free of contaminating metaphysical beliefs. This can often involve exploring inner voices sufficiently to find and trust the highest, most mature aspect within, the transpersonal self. (2015, p. 145, emphasis mine)
The difference between transpersonal therapists and "shamans" who try to help others discover the transcendental truth of life is that transpersonal therapists do this work without the aid of plant medicines or other drugs. Identification with the spirit/essence of the individual is achieved through various techniques, including but not limited to shamanic journeying, hypnotherapy, and breathwork.
Although it may be hard for an evangelical LSD "head" of the 1960s or a modern user of Amazonian plant medicine to believe, those who have discovered the transcendental nature of life through these means were not the first to ponder the nature of the essence that each human being is, beyond the shell of the body and the ego. There are examples that reach back in time to the ancient Vedas of India, who developed yoga as a method of spiritual union, a way to separate the Atman (the Reality or transpersonal state) from the non-Atman (the apparent or ego state). According to the philosopher Patanjali, yoga is seen as a way to control the thought-waves in the mind, in order to allow the Atman, or highest self, to be the focal point of existence, rather than gratification of the ego (Swami Prabahavananda & Isherwood, 1953, 1981). In the early and mid-twentieth century, psychologist Carl Jung understood that the driving urge behind human life came from the soul and its ability to actualize through the ego and the body. Jung writes,
My soul leads me into the desert, into the desert of my own self. I did not think that my soul is a desert, a barren, hot, desert, dusty and without drink. The journey leads through hot sand, slowly wading without a visible goal to hope for?... Why is my self a desert? Have I lived too much outside of myself in men and events? Why did I avoid my self? Was I not dear to myself? But I have avoided the place of my soul. 1 was my thoughts, after 1 was no longer events and other men. But 1 was not my self, confronted with my thoughts. I should also rise up above my thoughts to my own self. My journey goes there... (Jung, 2009, p. 141)
Does this sound much like the descriptions many people have offered while using Ayahuasca? Jung used psychotherapy, archetypes, new theories of being, as well as tarot and astrology to achieve his encounter with the transpersonal perception of his existence.
Speaking of the ancient practice of studying the skies, astrology is also an attempt to study the patterns of stars and planets, looking to see where it is that we have come from, and how we might receive some messages and divine inspirations by noticing the patterns that are produced by the vast sea of celestial bodies. This can be another way and form of transcendence.
However, when planets such as Uranus and Pluto are making contact, as they have been in recent years, people will have the attitude of "Transform me... NOW." They may not want to go through years of Jungian analysis, or even several hours with an astrologer. They might practice yoga, but probably will not have the patience to reach the transcendent state, where it becomes possible for the yogi to move out-of-body, levitate, and ultimately, achieve oneness with the Godhead (Swami Prabahavananda & Isherwood, 1953, 1981).
Transpersonal psychology and the techniques that are used in order to allow people to get to unconscious and transcendent material do not take so long, however. One technique in particular, breathwork, finds its basis in ancient shamanic practices from around the globe, including the Amazon.
Breathing, the Way to Transcendence
Most of us can breathe with little or no effort, just like our hearts beat and our digestive system processes our food without the help of the human will. Like these other bodily functions, we depend on our breathing. It oxygenates our bodies, but we don't spend much time worrying about how that will happen. Yet, there is something outstanding about breathing. Humans have the ability to control it. The techniques of yoga, Sufi, and Buddhist meditation, as well as indigenous tribal practices of various types, employ techniques that bring awareness to the breath, and use breath as a way to achieve a greater degree of consciousness.
Stanislav Grof is often singled out, along with his wife Christina, for the development of holotropic breathwork. The term "holotropic," which they coined, means "moving toward wholeness," and it is meant to label a large subgroup of non-pathological, non-ordinary states that are capable of producing healing through transformation and evolution. It is the experience or invasion of other dimensions of existence that makes these techniques uniquely useful. Ancient and indigenous peoples, including the Q'eros people of Peru, have developed safe and effective methods for inducing these states. Sometimes, as in the case of spiritual emergency, the occurrence of transcending "reality" happens spontaneously, with no outside stimulus.
Grof's research led him to see the psyche not as a product of the brain, but as a part of a human being that must be teased out of the "unfathomable cosmic matrix." He acknowledged and worked with the prenatal and perinatal stages of life, and saw how they fit into the big picture of the psyche, as does transcendence (Grof, 1988). These same kinds of transcendent states can be achieved through the rituals of the Q'eros in Peru. The Q'eros are known for their ceremonial offerings to mountain spirits. Like outsiders seek the Ayahuasqueros, they also track down the Q'eros in order to participate in their rituals. Prophecy is a part of their practice, and in general, the Andean worldview is one that includes patterns of behavior and belief that are not generally available in western culture.
The Q'eros bring about higher states of consciousness through an offering ceremony known as despachos, initiation rites known as karpay healing (or transfer of healing powers), coca leaf readings, and through the expansion of poq'po, or pure energy. Rather than DMT-laden tea, the Q'eros use invocation and prayer, spoken into the objects being offered, to bring blessings to the items that are offered. During karpay, Q'eros blow into the crown of the head, the hands, and other areas of the body, in order to transfer the subtle energies. Breath is the way the subtle awareness is made accessible, and through the way they breathe, the Q'eros live in such a way that they are in constant communion with this elevated state of being. Through their seven-level hierarchy of psycho-spiritual development, they set up a process by which a person can ultimately attain oneness with spirit, much as in the way Grof developed a developmental framework for the psyche that incorporated the pre- and perinatal levels of existence, as well as transcendence (Levee, 2015).
Grof was able to discern the significance of these stages of development through his many experiments with non-ordinary states. This began with experiments involving the use of LSD in the late 1950s. Grof himself was the subject of experiments during which he received large doses of the drug, and it is said that his transcendental experience set him on the path of his life's work (Zaitchik, 2010). Grof notes that ancient accounts of psychedelic substances going back at least 3500 years emanated from cultures in China, India and Persia. He mentions also the use of psychedelics by Pre-Columbian cultures in South America and Native American groups. These substances include peyote, the psilocybe mexicana mushroom, morning glory seeds, peyote, and of course, Ayahuasca. African tribes used the shrub eboga over the ages to do everything from enhance their ability to hunt to help them commune with spirit.
In his study of ceremonies from around the world, Grof found that most rites of passage involving psychedelics and other means of shamanic transition involve the death-rebirth process through decent into the underworld, torture, dismemberment and annihilation by demons. Also, transpersonal experiences involve elements of nature, such as a deep connection with cosmic forces, animals and animal spirits, plant life, and inanimate objects as well. Development of enhanced intuition, extrasensory perception (ESP), creative inspiration, the ability to diagnose and heal illnesses, parapsychological encounters and descriptions of the world of subtle energies are part of these experiences, as well as experiences that are racial or collective in nature.
Many of these effects come from psychedelic plants, to be sure, but Grof emphasizes that they also can come from non-ordinary states of consciousness that result from breathing, chanting, drumming, trance, dancing and meditation. Grof believes that he as well as the many people he has worked with have successfully set Kundalini into motion. Kundalini, often depicted as the coiled serpent, is the essential energy at the base of the spine that can open the body's chakras, and increase the flow of energy throughout the subtle body channels. While the experience might not match the level of intensity of devotees who spend most of life working at this activation, it nonetheless is brought into the consciousness of the transpersonal seeker (Grof, 1988). It is interesting to note, also, the consistent symbolism of the serpent throughout literature that deals with death, rebirth and transcendence. There certainly does seem to be a common thread among the various roads toward the experience of going beyond the ordinary. Exploring the use of breathwork as a therapeutic tool will further illustrate how safe and effective it is as a way to achieve the transcendent state without the disruptive and dangerous side effects of drugs that chemically alter the brain.
Zimberoff and Hartman (1999) have quite an evocative idea about what breathwork is. They call it "the frontier of being and doing." It gives the client a way to work on the physical/somatic, emotional/psychological and spiritual levels. The bridge between the unconscious and conscious minds can be built, allowing material that is buried in the brain to come out and be processed through physical sensation, emotional release and cognitive refraining.
Breath, as noted earlier, is unique among the other autonomic functions of the body because it can be controlled. When a person is not thinking about it, breath also gives an idea of what is going on inside an individual's psyche. Breath patterns often depict excitement, fear, anxiety, grief, and even serenity. When breath is brought under control, it becomes possible for an individual to understand the subtle energy that is the essence of being. During the breathwork session, music is added to stimulate the parts of the brain that are non-verbal. Often the playlists used will include "world" music that evokes tribal feelings as well as "space" music that takes the consciousness above and beyond the planet. The breathwork process can drive people to a point where crucial moments in their history are brought up, often through memories that are stored in the body. Many of these experiences involve the pre- and perinatal stages of development. People can experience emotional and psychological healing from unresolved trauma, as well as a transcendent unity with nature, life, and the divine. In breathwork, the unconscious is accessed directly, the higher part of it as well as the lower, or shadow part. Breathwork breaks through such repressive devices as shame, loneliness, fear, sadness, unworthiness, pain, and isolation because it works directly through the body. People overcome the fear of letting go by focusing on the act of controlling the breath (Zimberoff & Hartman, 1999).
All of this sounds almost exactly like the effects people describe when taking LSD or plant medicine! There are obviously many parallels. To some degree, in fact, purging is a possibility. There are times when people become either physically or emotionally overwhelmed, and need to vomit in order to find relief. This, among many other reasons, is why breathwork, while it is simple and can be conducted without elaborate equipment, is best completed when there is a person sitting and watching the breather, tending to the person's needs, and keeping him or her from falling or otherwise suffering from harm.
Beyond these considerations, however, breathwork is an exceptionally safe and easy way to get the same kinds of experience one gets from plant medicine, while avoiding the risks of the chemical reactions in the body, including gastric spasms and tachycardia. Breathwork is accomplished by deliberately breathing in a way that is faster and deeper than normal, without pausing between inhaling and exhaling. The conscious connected breathing that results super-oxygenates the body and helps the body to discharge toxins. The breathing pattern engages the upper, middle and lower parts of the respiratory apparatus.
This breathing pattern is often triggered by traumatic memories, and happens naturally. In breathwork, however, the aim is to do the reverse. By creating the breathing pattern, the traumatic memories can be accessed and safely processed. Just as in the Ayahuasca experience, the conscious mind is suppressed and material from the unconscious arises. Delta and theta brainwaves, such as those found in the shamanic state of consciousness, are exhibited by people who are undergoing breathwork.
This is how breath is on the frontier between the two opposing forces in the brain, i.e. doing, which produces the beta and alpha brainwaves and normal waking consciousness, and being, which is represented by the delta and theta brainwave patterns. Breathwork bridges the gap between the two, balancing the extremes, and bringing the breather into a most profound understanding of his or her inner workings. This controlled breathing brings people into the "frontier" states of dreaming, breath-induced trance, fantasy, hypnosis and meditation. People might also experience a state of "overinclusiveness" or "hyperassociation," when the brain's associative faculties are so "loose" that almost anything can fit into the dream scenario. Zimberoff and Hartman put it beautifully:
The highest aspects of us, the shaman, hero, and warrior, are brought face-to-face to battle with the ego-identity, the inertia to normality, and our shadow aspects... (Zimberoff & Hartman, 1999, p. 14)
From personal experience, I can say that the sensations and insights received from doing breathwork are every bit as vivid and rich as using drugs to reach the transcendent state, yet the safety factor is so much higher. (I have never used Ayahuasca or Kambo, but did take other psychedelics before entering recovery.) I have had experiences during breathwork that included the full range of sensations, sights, sounds, perceptions, and pure bliss that was produced by other psychedelics. The only things missing were the irregular heartbeat, the effects of drugs that might have been mixed in with the hallucinogenics, and the fear that I might never come out of that state. In fact, I was "told" by a spirit I encountered during my last acid trip that I had best make that the final time I put such chemicals in my brain. The message was that if I continued to pump these chemicals through my brain, I might lose the ability to come back to normal and live my life's purpose.
The lack of a need to wait out the end of the effects, as one must in the case of hallucinogenic drugs, is a distinct advantage of doing breathwork. The breather can be soothed and even brought back to normal waking consciousness by the "sitter" who accompanies the breather on the journey. There are no after-effects, and outside of a short processing time, there is little emotional upset as well. Of course, there are exceptions to every situation, and not all patients or clients would be suitable candidates for breathwork. However, people who are already using chemical means to achieve transcendence might be far better served by using breathwork to get at the psychic material they seek.
The call to Transpersonal Awareness
At this writing, we seem to still be under the influence of the Uranus-Pluto square and its push toward the need for "instant transformation." Not only do an increasing number of people seem to be using plant medicine, research is coming in that supports its use in further applications, underlining how it can help cure depression and grow new neurons for the hippocampus. While these breakthroughs might seem to be miraculous, there is still much to be concerned about. Taking in chemicals that affect the body the way that plant medicines can has the possibility of causing harm. My personal experience with friends has me concerned not only about their physical health, but about their tendency to use "ceremony" as an excuse to get high. Altered states of consciousness are indeed pleasant, but putting chemicals that create tachycardia into bodies that are 40, 50, 60 years old and more does not sound safe.
The last time Uranus and Pluto exerted their transcendental influence on this planet, the mad rush to take LSD and other hallucinogens subsided in time, and the technique of breathwork evolved from the experience and research of Grof and others. Practitioners of transpersonal techniques, particularly breathwork, have a huge opportunity in today's transcendence-ready climate. This is the perfect time to bring breathwork into common use and practice, offering it to the community in safe, efficient, and effective ways. Not only will we be doing a service to the people around us, we will also be answering the call to transcendence being sent out by Uranus and Pluto in a responsible manner, one which fosters human evolution through transpersonal awareness.
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|Publication:||Journal of Heart Centered Therapies|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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