AYA Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey
Interview with Rak Razam
Brought to you by North Atlantic books.
1. What inspired you to go on your journey to learn about the Ayahuasca trade and to chronicle it in your book, “Aya Awakenings A Shamanic Odyssey”?
Everyone’s journey is unique, and my calling to the medicine of ayahuasca was also a unique path–I never realized I was writing a book until it was too late. I went to Peru in 2006 on a magazine assignment to track down the mythic archetype of the shaman, and discover how that was changing as a generation of western seekers went in search of a reconnection to plant entheogens and the spiritual world they open up. After drinking ayahuasca with about a dozen shamans I realized that the story was bigger than the article I had set out to write–and the mysteries ayahuasca revealed were far deeper than I had ever imagined. The story wrote me into it, and it became my own shamanic odyssey.
2. What can you tell us about your background with shamanism? Have you always been attracted to it and how did you originally get introduced to it?
I have always been attracted to things outside the norm. Raised on sci-fi, pop-culture, comic books and the like, as an adult I realized that all these mythic archetypes pointed towards a universal role and need to be fulfilled in the human psyche. Modern western culture has inherited a barren psychic and spiritual landscape populated by the debris left behind by centuries of conquest of the feminine, magic and relationship with the planet. The Western orthodoxy killed off the witches, the plant herbalists and the medicine people as science evolved from alchemy and tribal knowledge. The West killed it’s relationship with the wonder of the world. Whole races that connected to the earth and the power plants she provided for greater connection to the web of life and the energetics involved were exterminated by successive waves of invaders to the “New World”. By the 20th century this vacuum was filled by archetypes of wizards and the western conceit of a shaman, but these cultural artifacts are remnants of a greater realm of possibility that still exists in the natural world. So I always had an awareness of shamanism, but only in a mythic way. It wasn’t until I became a “gonzo” journalist exploring the frontiers of the known that I really focused on the contemporary practice of shamanism and the burgeoning business of ayahuasca shamanism being embraced by the west, and my introduction to that was the 2006 Amazonian Shaman Conference in Iquitos, Peru.
3. What is your perspective on Ayahuasca itself and your experiences with it? What does it mean to you personally?
Ayahuasca is many things, but foremost amongst them it is a plant based earth medicine that as well as being psychoactive, is also a great teacher for people here and now. I firmly believe that, as the saying goes, you get the politicians you deserve, and we also get the medicines we deserve and need when we need them. 20th century western culture had to have the psychedelic explosion of the 1960s because the white picket fence culture was so distanced from the earth and mother nature that a different medicine was needed then. William Burroughs explored the Amazon and wrote about ayahuasca back in the 1950s, but we weren’t ready for it as a culture then. I believe there are larger forces of integration and innoculation going on, and that over many generations we are being led, as a species, back to the garden, to the simple awareness that the planet itself is a living, sapient and intelligent organism regulating all life on earth–including us troublesome monkeys. Ayahuasca is one of the current pre-eminent tools that the earth has to connect with us to show us not just ourselves, but our place in the web of life and our role in the gestalt organism of life on this planet. The medicine of ayahuasca is a purgative, but it is often lifting denser emotional and vibrational memories and pains from our system, as well as physically assisting in our own healing. It’s not a wonder drug that does all this on it’s own–the curanderos or the shaman-healers of the Amazon, they believe ayahuasca, like all living things, has a spirit, and that spirit communicates with the web of life, and assists in energetic healing by bringing us back into the Gaian conversation happening all around us. As Terence McKenna once said: “Nature is alive and is talking to us. This is not a metaphor.” Ayahuasca reveals that truth, but it is just one tool amongst many to pull back the curtain and reveal the great mystery we are embedded in.
4. My only problem with Ayahuasca is finding it where I live and I do not have the money to fly around to exotic locales to do it. Florida treats most drugs like crack cocaine still so you probably get life here for having it for all I know. Do you think it will ever become more acceptable in parts of society like these?
Ayahausca is a plant medicine with an unbroken cultural heritage throughout South America and the Amazonia region. It was declared a ‘national treasure’ by Peru in 2008 second only to Macchu Picchu, and the medicine has–luckily–been brought out of those same jungles being devestated by logging and western capitalism and is now seeding across the world. Legislating against a plant, any plant, whether that be marijuana or ayahausca is absurd. Nature is not illegal, it is only the control mechanisms of those wishing to control consciousness itself which is the crime. The United Nations drug board, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), has reinforced many times in its annual communiques that the ayahausca brew, being a simple tea made from the vine and admixture plants, is NOT illegal throughout the world–unless specifically legislated against by a nation state (like France did). Chemical extractions of DMT are illegal, but not DMT in its native form whether that be in plants or in our own brains! Although there has been the occasional arrest over ayahuasca in the USA as well as elsewhere, almost all reputable practitioners have had charges dropped when the law realizes there is no real law but the lore to stand on. And ayahausca churches like Santo Daime have won the right to practise their ayahausca usage as part of their religion. How can one group be entitled to do that and not us all? We all know the War on Drugs is a war on the basic freedom of consciousness itself, and controlling citizens in a way that invalidates the US constitution and the freedom of liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Ayahausca is not a drug war poster boy because it is a verifiable spiritual tool used by people in the enjoyment of their relationship with divinity. Ayahuasca will never be a recreational drug–the purging, fasting and intensity of the experience cannot be commodified for recreation or quick use, and there is no danger of it being used for anything but healing and spiritual exploration. As the western use of it mutates, the lineage and sanctity need to be reinforced, however, and the medicine itself will illuminate on that regard. One does not, therefore have to go the jungles to experience it anymore–but beware that the western evolution of the ayahausca ceremony is now often different from the indigenous ritual. This is both natural and inevitable, but certain universal safeguards must still be maintained no matter where and with whom a ceremony is conducted. And ayahuasca is increasingly being utilized for it’s healing and illumination potential by all ages, especially older people, from all social groups, including the same upper echelons that make and enforce cultural rules. It’s almost as if the old 1950s sci-fi adage of aliens saying “take me to your leader” is being practised by the planet, through the plants like ayahausca, to turn on, tune in and empower the decentralized sovereignty of everyone as their own leader through self-realization. And that’s probably the threat to centralized authority while at the same time it creates a planetary pressure to soothe the egoic dominator control model that has decimated the natural world around us. Funny how these things work, huh?
5. Is there a dark side to the Ayahuasca trade that you have come across personally? People abusing it or addiction to it or people charging to much to it? I have problems thinking its all roses and dandelions. Any thoughts on the negatives that you found in your journey?
The curanderos themselves will tell you that ayahuasca–like all things–is both light and dark. Very often part of the ayahuasca journey involves facing your shadow and demons figuratively and literally. Ayahuasca is bio-chemcially non-addictive and cannot be abused like recreational chemicals–the taste and purging and demand regulate that. It cannot kill you alone, although if your ceremony is not facilitated with the correct duty of care dangers could be had from being in the aya intoxicated state, dealing with vomit or falling, the jungle, things like that. That should never happen in a cared for sacred ceremony. But the business of spirituality that has so quickly sprung up in the last 20 years, especially the last few years, has seen the commodification of this sacred medicine in the West. Tens of thousands of pilgrims are travelling to the Amazon to experience ayahuasca, and that upsets the social apple cart with locals scrabbling to fulfil the demand from ‘rich’ gringos and their spiritual tourist dollar. Many lodges have been built with western money to cater to this supply and demand, and the quality and integrity of some practitioners is very dubious. It’s like a gold rush with many varied levels of people truly wanting to help, some cashing in on the craze, others outright abusing the flow of touristo energy. It’s not the fault of ayahuasca herself, any more than we could blame gold for the behaviour of some making empires during the gold rushes, or the behaviour of some when money enters the equation. True seekers must wade through the periphery to find the center, wherever that center that is. Sources like the forums on ayahausca.com are invaluable for peer-review and up to the minute info on lodges, practitioners and the ayahuasca community both in the Amazon and globally. Do your homework and research thoroughly–women should be especially aware that cultural values are different in South America and the machismo culture saturates through to shamans, too. No one is a guru. There have been many unnecessary and sad reports of abuse by well known curanderos–some that even appear in my book and film, whose reputations have grown as the money and power in the industry has grown. Ultimately ayahuasca is seeding across the planet, and I believe a new global generation of plant medicine people are being groomed, so ayahuasca is using the momentum of capitalism to invade the host body and do the healing needed on all our psyches. This generation needs to sort out the money-power-spirituality problem, and as more people grow their own and conduct their own ceremonies that centralization of a shaman and the inter-cultural teething issues around them will eventually be eliminated.
6. This is a wild card question. What would you like to share with us from your book that our readers might find beneficial?
Hope. The world is larger than we have been led to believe, and we have to find our place in it, and the cosmic ecology. Sailors of old would unfurl their sails and catch the wind to travel, and that same principle is at work in the manifestation of consciousness. If you catch the wind of spirit, it can guide and support you, and carry you along to places you’ve only dreamed about. And more than that, by working with spirit we can anchor a truly sustainable paradigm from the inside out. The world is as we dream it, as the shamans say. We haven’t talked much about the book Aya Awakenings: A Shamanic Odyssey yet. It was my virgin trip into the jungle, into the great mystery, and into a remembrance of spirit infused in all things. It’s not your average book by any means, but a hyper-realized memoir of over 24 ayahausca ceremonies and a snapshot of the culture in Peru circa 2006 and the seeds of the Global Shamanic Resurgence we are now living through. While writing the book I seem to have developed this razor-sharp eye for truth, and the knack of encapsulating it in words. Many times I felt I wasn’t even writing at all, but channeling what I felt, and the connection I had to what I was experiencing. The words were like rain falling on the page: all I had to do was feel deeply, and the right words–the exact words–would cluster themselves round the emotion, like sculpting meaning into form.
7. What can you share with us about Dennis McKenna and your experiences and conversations with him in your sojourns?
Dennis is one of the great old guard entheogenic explorers and scientists that has dedicated his life to unravelling the Gaian mysteries. As recounted in his recent book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, Dennis was intertwined with his brother Terence on the early expedition to the Amazon in search of DMT-containing virolas, he was a foundational inspiration for the jungle adventures, and, in fact, while Terence went on to proselyte about psychedelics and plant entheogens to great success, Dennis was the one who grounded it in science. Dennis was the one who “crossbonded” with the psilocybin intelligence and was smeared across all space and time, taking two weeks to come down with scrambled MAO pathways from the legendary “Experiment at La Chorrerra” in the Amazon in 1971. Dennis was the one chosen to have the shamanic initiation. And, thankfully, Dennis has been spreading his wisdom as an elder to the scientific and entheogenic tribe for many years. We first met in Iquitos in 2006 and drank in an ayahausca ceremony there. He’s visited Australia twice for conferences and the like, and I’ve met him at various lodges in the Amazon and interviewed him a number of times, including a seminal interview where we chatted about the future role of the aya tourist lodges as entheogenic monasteries training a next generation of “shamanauts” (see: http://in-a-perfect-world.podomatic.com/entry/2010-05-04T14_32_27-07_00). Not only is he a solid, dependable elder figure for our global tribe–he’s also a sweet and integral man that has listened to the call of spirit and has done everything he can to communicate that message, and still is. Dennis has a heart of gold. He’s been to the core of the mystery and whether he will admit it or not, he groks what’s really going on.
8. Would you share some experiences you’ve had or heard from others that have been had under the influence of Ayahuasca?
Again, I’ll quote from the book here to give you a narrative slice of the lyrical beauty the medicine can evoke: “I feel like the ayahuasca’s getting to know me from the inside out, but I’m trying to control her; I’m static and blocking her ability to come through. It’s only when all the others seem to have fallen asleep in the wee hours of the night can I bring myself to get up and creep out deep into the jungle to purge. As I look up from my vomit I can see water particles hanging in the air like a swarm of liquid bees; tiny glowing beads of moisture, jungle dew. Glistening among the beads are glowing mitochondria-like amoebas illuminated by the light from my headlamp. I can’t for the life of me figure out what they are: they hang there preternaturally in the light, and as I reach out my hand and wave it in the air the beads curl and swirl in an equal and opposite reaction to my motion. Then it hits me: this is the breath of the Mother, visible and exhaling all around. God, the ayahuasca’s hitting me now, changing my perceptions, deepening my emotional connection to the web of life… It’s like there’s an invisible thread and if you pull on it the whole picture will unravel, revealing the true pattern underneath. I feel I am intimately connected to everything around me by my vibrational wavefront, to that great atomic sea where we are all one. Safe in the great green womb, I am remembering what this connection means, who—and what—we really are…”
9. What are you up to next book wise and any links you’d like to share or parting words?
I’m gestating what will be the world’s best anthology on the culture, history, science and spiritual evolution of dimethyltryptamine that should be out in 2015. And in Jan, 2014 the ten-city film tour of the astounding new documentary adaption of the book, Aya: Awakenings will storm the USA. This film is, as early reviewer Damon Orion called it in Reality Sandwich, “a multisensory, multidimensional mindblower, leaving the viewer stunned, invigorated and filled with reverent awe for the Great Mystery.” Featuring the artwork of Pablo Amaringo, Andy Debernardi and more; directed by Tim Parish and with music by Shpongle, Tipper, Darpan, Lulacruza, Maneesh de Moor and curanderos Norma Panduro, Guillermo Arevalo, Percy Garcia Lozano, Ron Wheelock and Kevin Furnas, this documentary charts the Global Shamanic Resurgence born in the jungles of Peru and reaching out to embrace the world. It has some of the most awesome shamanic sequences ever depicted–grounded–in film, all taken from the direct text of the book, and it is guaranteed to awaken you to the deeper shamanic reality that is our birthright. You can check out the DVD and cinema screenings at the website: http://www.aya-awakenings.com
And remember, folks, everything happens for a reason. We all all connected in an interdependent web of life that sustains and nurtures us, and everything is rapidly changing for the greatest good. Trust the process: the best is yet to come.
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