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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Ayahuasca: Hallucinogens, Consciousness, and the Spirit of Nature

Metzner, Ralph. (editor) (1999)
New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.

ISBN: 1-56025-160-3

Description: Paperback, x + 294 pages.

Contents: Introduction, 1. The Experience of Ayahuasca: Teachings of the Amazonian Plant Spirits [includes 24 first person accounts], 2. Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History by Dennis J. McKenna, 3. The Psychology of Ayahuasca by Charles S. Grob, 4. Phytochemistry and Neuropharmacology of Ayahuasca by Jace C. Callaway, 5. Conclusions, Reflections, and Speculations by Ralph Metzner, notes on contributors.

Excerpt(s): As a plant drug or medicine, ayahuasca is one of a group of similar substances that defy classification: they include psilo-cybin derived from the Aztec sacred mushroom teonanacatl, mescaline derived from the Mexican and North American pey-ote cactus, DMT and various chemical relatives derived from South American snuff powders known as epena or cohoba, the infamous LSD derived from the ergot fungus that grows on grains, ibogaine derived from the root of the African Tabernanthe iboga tree and many others. As plant extracts or synthesized drugs, these substances have been the subject of a large variety of scientific research approaches over the past fifty years, particularly as to their potential applications in psy-chotherapy, in the expansion of consciousness for the enhance-ment of creativity, and as amplifiers of spiritual exploration. They have been called psychotomimetic ("madness mimick-ing"), psycholytic ("psyche loosening"), psychedelic ("mind manifesting"), hallucinogenic ("vision inducing") and entheogenic ("connecting to the sacred within"). The different terms reflect the widely differing attitudes and intentions, the varying set and setting with which these substances have been approached. We will be describing the Western scientific psy-chological and psychiatric approaches to ayahuasca in this book also. (page 2)

Many Western-trained physicians and psychologists have acknowledged that these substances can afford access to spiritual or transpersonal dimensions of consciousness, even mystical experiences indistinguishable from classic religious mysticism, whether Eastern or Western. The new term entheogen attempts to recognize this element of access to sacred dimensions and states. In the North American peyote church, the African Bwiti cult using iboga, and in several Brazilian churches using ayahuasca, we have seen the development of authentic folk religious movements that incorporate these entheogenic or hallucinogenic plant extracts as sacraments - developing both syncretic and highly original forms of religious ceremony. The Brazilian ayahuasca-using churches by now have thousands of followers, both in South America and in North America and Europe, and they are growing in numbers and influence. So here we have a substance that has profoundly affected the transformation of individuals now beginning to bring about something like a cultural transformation movement. These facets of the ayahuasca story will also be explored in this book.

As hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Westerners and Northerners have participated in shamanic practices involving ayahuasca (as well as other medicines and nondrug practices) and joined the ceremonies of the various ayahuasca churches, it has become clear that there is a profound discontinuity in fundamental worldview and values between the Western industrialized world and the beliefs and values of traditional shamanistic societies and practitioners. A powerful resurgence of respectful and reverential attitudes toward the living Earth and all its creatures seems to be a natural consequence of explorations with visionary plant teachers. As such, this revival of entheogenic shamanism can be seen as part of a worldwide response to the degradation of ecosystems and the biosphere - a response that includes such movements as deep ecology, ecofeminism, bioregionalism, ecopsychology, herbal and natural medicine, organic farming and others. In each of these movements there is a new awareness, or rather a revival of ancient awareness of the organic and spiritual interconnect-edness of all life on this planet. (pages 3-4)

…Realizing that there were traditions reaching back to prehistoric times, of the respectful use of hallucinogens for shamanic purposes, I became much more interested in plants and mushrooms that have a history of such use, rather than the newly discovered powerful drugs, the use of which often involves unknown risks. I have come to see the revival of interest in shamanism and sacred plants as part of the worldwide seeking for a renewal of the spiritual relationship with the natural world.

Over the past two millennia Western civilization has increasingly developed patterns of domination based on the assumption of human superiority. The dominator pattern has involved the gradual desacralization, objectification and exploitation of all nonhuman nature. Alternative patterns of culture survived however among indigenous peoples, who pre-served animistic belief systems and shamanic practices from the most ancient times. The current intense revival of interest in shamanism, including the intentional use of entheogenic plant sacraments, is among the hopeful signs that the split between the sacred and the natural can be healed again. ...

As a result of the conflict between the Christian church and the new experimental science of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, and others, a dualistic worldview was created. On the one hand was science, which confined itself to material objects and measurable forces. Anything having to do with purpose, value, morality, subjectivity, psyche, or spirit, was the domain of reli-gion, and science stayed out of it. Inner experiences, subtle per-ceptions and spiritual values were not considered amenable to scientific study and came therefore to be regarded as inferior forms of reality - "merely subjective" as we say. This encour-aged a purely mechanistic and myopically detached attitude towards the natural world. Perception of and communication with the spiritual essences and intelligences inherent in nature have regularly been regarded with suspicion, or ridiculed as misguided "enthusiasm" or "mysticism." ...

... I believe spiritual values can again become the primary moti-vation for scientists. It should be obvious that this direction for science would be a lot healthier for all of us and the planet, than science directed, as it is now primarily, towards generat-ing weaponry or profit.

In this book, we will provide a look at the phenomenon of ayahuasca both from the perspectives of objective natural and social science (botany, chemistry, pharmacology, medicine, anthropology and psychology) and from the point of view of subjective experience - a realm usually not considered amenable to scientific investigation. To do so requires a new look at the epistemology of consciousness. (pages 5-7)

There is a paradox in the terminology often used here to describe these substances. The word "hallucinogen" has been generally rejected by Western psychedelic researchers as being an inappropriate appellation, since they do not induce one to see "hallucinations" in the sense of illusory or nonreal percep-tions. But the derivation of hallucination is from the Latin alu-cinar, "to wander in the mind," in other words, an altered state journey. So, I actually prefer to use the term hallucinogen, if it is understood in the sense of "inducing journeys in the mind." (page 15)

When the fantastically potent mind-altering qualities of LSD were first discovered at the height of World War II in a Swiss pharmaceutical lab, they were characterized as psychotomimetic and psycholytic. The prospect of unhinging the mind from its normal parameters for a few hours to simulate madness interested a small number of daring psychiatric researchers as a possible training experience. Predictably, this possibility also intrigued the military and espionage agencies of both superpowers, especially the Americans. Considerable research effort and expense was devoted for about ten years to determining the most effective surreptitious delivery systems to unsuspecting enemy soldiers, agents, or leaders for maximum confusion, disorientation, or embarrassment. Ironically, and fortunately, it was the capacity of LSD to tap into the hidden mystical potentials of the human mind that ruined its applicability as a weapon of war. Rather than mak-ing subjects predictably submissive to mind-control program-ming, LSD had the unnerving propensity to suspend the exist-ing mental programming and thereby release one into awesome worlds of cosmic consciousness. The military was not prepared to have soldiers or espionage agents turn into mystics. (pages 19-20)


The distinction I have drawn between entheogen-based shamanic rituals and folk religious ceremonies involving plant entheogens is in some ways arbitrary. There is a continuum of ritual forms and practices. The emphasis in shamanic practices is healing and divination, and they are usually conducted in small groups of about a dozen participants, or sometimes just with one or two afflicted individuals and shaman apprentices. The folk religious ceremonies, such as those of the Native American Church or the African Bwiti cult, usually involve fairly large groups of twenty to forty participants, or in the case of the Brazilian ayahuasca churches up to several hundred. In such ceremonies the intentional focus is not so much on healing and visioning, but on group worship and celebra-tion with singing and prayer. Instead of a shaman or healer there are priests and officiants. There is very little or no discussion or sharing of visions or insights, as there would be in the context of a shamanic healing or divination.

The groups coalescing around such entheogenic folk cere-monies in an urban or village society have organized themselves into recognized churches, thereby providing their members with a certain degree of social cohesion and protection. An important social function of these religious ceremonies is to strengthen community bonds and give members a sense of participation and belonging. As Charles Grob reports in his account of the research with the long-term hoasca users of the Uniao do Vegetal, there is marked reduction in the incidence of alcoholism and drug addiction; this is also true for participants in the Native American Church in the U.S. Anthropologists have noted that a further societal function of these churches is to provide a protective shield of traditional lore against the encroachments of Christian missionaries and the seductions of Western consumer culture.

In Brazil there are no less than three organized churches in which ayahuasca is the main sacrament, the Santo Daime, the Uniao do Vegetal (UDV) and the Barquinia.. . .

These syncretic religious movements in Brazil have brought the use of entheogenic plant substances out of the context of shamanic healing rituals where only a very limited number of people came into contact with them. They have made pro-found spiritually transforming experiences with entheogenic plant medicines accessible to a large number and wide spec-trum of people in all walks of life, both in Brazil and also in North America and Europe. These movements represent an authentic religious revitalization movement. We may be seeing the beginnings of a broader trans-cultural transformation movement with significant impact. (pages 35-39)

... However, it is not true that the churches represent a decadent shamanic practice. They represent a syncretic religious form that makes this hallu-cinogenic healing brew available to thousands of urban resi-dents both in South America and in North America and Europe. In meeting with people of the different churches, I have not been drawn to join their particular religion or accept their ideology, but nevertheless I've appreciated their values, which are humane and supportive of family and community.

Out of studies by North Americans in Peru and Brazil, with mestizo shamans and anthropologists who have studied with them, has grown a network of Western psychedelic seekers who come to ayahuasca often with considerable experience with psychotherapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs. It is from this loose collection of consciousness explorers that most of the accounts in this book are drawn. I call their approach a hybrid of shamanic and psychotherapeutic methods. (pages 39-40)

... How the native peoples of the Amazon discovered this sophisticated synergistic plant biochemistry is unknown, although the reductionistic explanation asserts that through generations, even centuries, of trial and error sam-pling of the abundant and diverse tropical flora, the aboriginal inhabitants of the region happened upon this unusual combi-nation. Asking the native peoples themselves, however, yields a very different response. Virtually all of the ayahuasca-using tribes of the Amazon Basin, as well as the modern syncretic churches, who use this plant hallucinogen concoction as a legal psychoactive ritual sacrament, attribute the discovery of ayahuasca, along with the mythological origins of their own idiosyncratic religious belief systems, to a form of divine inter-vention. However human beings happened to come upon or were directed to this unique phytochemical combination, its discovery was integral to both the development of early native cultures as well as the rise of interest in these sacred plants in our own day. (pages 217)

Spreading primarily to urban areas, the UDV became the largest and most organized of the ayahuasca churches, ulti-mately establishing its headquarters in the Brazilian capital city of Brasilia. The UDV was also primarily responsible for the successful petition to the Brazilian govern-ment to remove ayahuasca from the list of banned substances. Establishing an extraordinary precedent, the Brazilian govern-ment in 1987 declared ayahuasca to be a legal substance when used within the context of religious practice, thus becoming the first nation worldwide in almost 1600 years to allow the use of plant hallucinogens for spiritual purposes by its non-indigenous inhabitants.

Over the past decade knowledge and use of ayahuasca has spread throughout Europe and North America. This activity has come primarily from two directions. The Brazilian ayahuasca churches, the Santo Daime in particular, have estab-lished centers in many cities across Europe, with greatest activ-ity in Spain, Holland and Germany. The UDV has been much more circumspect and cautious, however, maintaining a rela-tively low profile and avoiding unnecessary and unwelcome media attention. This pattern has continued in the United Sates, particularly on the West Coast, where in recent years the Santo Daime has held a number of "works," generally open events with minimal screening or preparation of participants, whereas UDV activities, under direction from the centralized church hierarchy in Brazil, have limited participation only to formal UDV members and individuals who had been previ-ously introduced to the plant sacrament and ritual. (pages 225-226)


As is the case with all hallucinogens, the ayahuasca experience is profoundly affected by the extrapharmacological factors of set and setting. Intention, preparation, and structure of the session are all integral to the content and outcome of any encounter with hallucinogens, a clear distinc-tion from virtually all other psychotropic agents. The diligent attention to these factors are known to be integral to the shamanic model of altered states of consciousness, minimizing risks and enhancing the likelihood of salutary results. The fail-ure to adequately comprehend and adhere to the wisdom behind these time tested safeguards, on the other hand, often leads to the unfortunate consequences frequently observed within the context of contemporary recreational drug use and abuse.

Altered states of consciousness, including those induced by hallucinogens, possess a variety of common elements. Before examining those features more closely identified with the ayahuasca experience, these shared properties merit review. The ten general characteristics understood to be virtually universal to such altered state expe-rience include: ...

7. Changes in Meaning or Significance. While in a powerful altered state of consciousness, some individuals manifest a propensity to attach special meaning or significance to their subjective experiences, ideas or perceptions. An experience of great insight or profound sense of meaning may occur, their significance ranging from genuine wis-dom to self-imposed delusion.

8. Sense of the Ineffable. Because of the uniqueness of the subjective experience associated with these states and their divergence from ordinary states of consciousness, individuals often have great difficulty communicating the essence of their experience to those who have never had such an encounter.

9. Feelings of Rejuvenation. Many individuals emerging from a profoundly altered state of consciousness report a new sense of hope, rejuvenation and rebirth. Such trans-formed states may be short-term, or conversely, may lead to sustained positive adjustments in mood and outlook. (pages 227-229)

All of the long-term ayahuasca-using subjects reported dur-ing the life-story interviews that they had undergone a person-al transformation following entry into the UDV and regular participation in ritual ayahuasca use. In addition to entirely dis-continuing cigarette, alcohol and recreational drug use, they reported a radical restructuring of their personal conduct and value systems. One subject described how: "I used to not care about anybody, but now I know about responsibility. Every day I work on being a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good worker. I try to do what I can to help others. ... I have learned to be calmer, more self confident, more accepting of others. ... I have gone through a transformation." Subjects emphasized the importance of "practicing good deeds," watch-ing one's words, and having respect for nature. Subjects also reported sustained improvement in memory and concentration, persistent positive mood states, fulfillment in day-to-day inter-actions, and a sense of purpose, meaning and coherence to their lives.

All of the subjects interviewed unequivocally attributed the positive changes in their lives to their experiences within the UDV and their participation in the ritual ingestion of ayahuas-ca. They described ayahuasca as a catalyst for their moral and psychological evolution. They also insisted, though, that it was not necessarily the ayahuasca alone which was responsible, but rather partaking of the ayahuasca within the ritual context of the UDV ceremonial structure. ... (page 241)


It is perhaps ironic that as we prepare to transition to a new century, and a new millennium, interest in the ancient arts of transcendence has begun to increase. From first contact, some 500 years ago, the Europeans who came to the Americas scorned and demonized the psychoactive plants the indigenous peoples used in their healing practices and religious rituals. Not deemed worthy of serious investigation, plant hallucino-gens such as ayahuasca remained of interest only to a handful of maverick anthropologists and ethnobotanists. Recently, however, efforts at initiating formal multidisciplinary study of ayahuasca have kindled hopes that rigorous evaluation of this Amazonian plant concoction may yield valuable new informa-tion about cross-cultural belief systems, the range of mental function and novel paradigms for healing. ...

The study of ayahuasca represents a challenge to main-stream culture through the phenomenon of new and novel forms of religious practice, exemplified by the ayahuasca churches of Brazil which have lately spread to North America and Europe. As with the case of other plant hallucinogens employed as religious sacraments, in particular the use of pey-ote by the Native American Church, vital questions regarding freedom of religious practice will have to be addressed. (pages 243-244)

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