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The Therapeutic Value of Ayahuasca

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The following is excerpted from Listening to Ayahuasca by Rachel Harris, PhD, published by New World Library.

Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew from the Amazon rainforest, is entering the Western lexicon through the popular media, the internet, and first-person reports. Considered a medicine by practitioners, the tea has great therapeutic potential that is just beginning to be studied. As a result of her own personal experience with ayahuasca, Dr. Rachel Harris was inspired to research how this medicine was being used in North America in the largest study of this kind to date. Listening to Ayahuasca describes her findings, including miracle cures of depression and addiction, therapeutic breakthroughs, spiritual revelations, and challenging trips. 

When discussing this aspect of ayahuasca, I prefer to use the term spiritual experience rather than mystical experience because it’s more inclusive. In scholarly research, mystical experience is defined carefully and specifically, and it includes or requires the presence of unity, transcendence of time and space, sacredness, noetic quality, and ineffability. By using spiritual experience instead, I can avoid the academic debate about what constitutes an authentic mystical experience. Certainly, in my study, reports of ayahuasca experiences describe some of the same mystical territory, but they also include aspects not usually mentioned in scholarly circles, like entry into otherworldly realms and contact with spirit entities.

What’s important here is that people describe, both in my study and elsewhere, huge leaps in their personal psychospiritual journey. They experience psychological healing and sometimes physical healing as well. Their way of being in the world undergoes a seismic shift from how they take care of themselves to how they understand their place in the universe. They also open up to what’s referred to as nonhuman worlds, including plant spirits, spirit doctors, personal ancestors, past-life experiences, and sometimes entities from other dimensions or universes.

My best description of the impact of ayahuasca is that it’s a rocket boost to psychospiritual growth and unfolding, my professional specialty during my thirty-five years of private practice. This kind of transformation is called “quantum change” in the professional literature, which acknowledges that psychology knows very little about it. Religious epiphanies are similar and better understood, or at least they are better documented by religion scholars. However, they, too, remain mysterious, with speculations of epilepsy as a contributing factor.

Philosopher William James explained them with his theory of “discontinuous transformation,” meaning that the leap is not a gradual evolution marked by education or practice but, rather, is a sudden, inexplicable awakening. In the case of ayahuasca testimonies, the leap is not inexplicable but directly attributable to the medicine, or to the spirit of the medicine. Perhaps both the chemical impact of the brew and the esoteric power of Grandmother Ayahuasca are involved.

One of the more famous spiritual experiences marked by white light, ecstasy, ineffability, great peacefulness, and a sense of the presence of God was reported by Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. His spiritual experience has touched millions of people through the now-ubiquitous self-help program. It’s not widely known, however, that his experience occurred while he was in an alcoholism-treatment program, which used a mix of drugs that included belladonna, or datura, one of the frequent admixtures to the ayahuasca brew. It’s possible that Bill W.’s revelation, which led to his abstinence, was caused by a plant associated with this Amazonian medicine.

From my study, what we do know is that the spiritual experiences arising during ayahuasca ceremonies lead to great changes in people’s lives. The qualitative descriptions of what people experienced and how they changed are confirmed by hard or quantitative data from the questionnaire. The people who used ayahuasca scored high on the two factors related to spirituality, “Joy in Life” and “Relationship to the Sacred.” When both qualitative and quantitative data are in agreement, we can be pretty sure we’re getting an accurate picture.


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