Notes on the Western Paradigm of Ayahuasca
This article is not to attack anyones practices and beliefs, but it tries to elucidate where in the West we have underplayed the role of the Ayahuasca vine and beta-carbolines within our Western notion of Ayahuasca, which has, since the early 1990′s wave of entheogenic literature, been very DMT-centric. Such an view has begun to lead onto the attitude that smoking DMT or Changa is ‘the evolution of Ayahuasca’ or ‘smokable Ayahuasca’. In this we risk falling into cultural appropriation, since the indigenous use of Ayahuasca (B.caapi) is many thousands of years old.
“ayahuasca” or “ayawaska” (“Spirit vine” or “vine of the souls”: in Quechua, aya means “spirit” while huasca or waska means “vine”) in Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru, and to a lesser extent in Brazil. The spelling ayahuasca is the hispanicized version of the name; many Quechua or Aymara speakers would prefer the spelling ayawaska. The name is properly that of the plant B. caapi, one of the primary sources of beta-carbolines for the brew.
Wikipedia- Ayahuasca entry
Ayahuasca is the indigenous Amazonian name for the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, where it has been used for thousands upon thousands of years in healing, sorcery, and cleansing. The vine is used as a gatekeeper to the realm of a myriad of medicinal plants, such as Ajo Sacha and Tobacco, which are ‘dieted’ in close proximity to the Vine.
Ayahuasca lives within a unique complex of customs, traditions, knowledge and wisdom which are strong to this day, and continue to develop within syncretic communities and movements such as UDV, Barquinha and Santo Daime, as well as through the unique and individualistic exploration with the tea in the Western world.
Ayahuasca in Psychedelic Literature
Beginning with ethnographic exploration, beat-generation literature, and the psychedelic research of the 1960′s, Ayahuasca research entered the Western world. Since the mid-1980′s Ayahuasca was popularised in North America and Europe through the writings of Terrence McKenna and other ethnobotanical luminaries such as Jim DeKorne and Jonathon Ott. This wave of literature was important and paradigm-shifting, despite the Ayahuasca often being understood from a Westernised ethnocentric perspective. The literature of this time focusses on the botanical classification of entheogenic plants and the principle psychedelic compounds they contain. Westerners approached indigenous traditions as pilgrims and explorers, ‘discovering’ the ways and means to work with the powerful psychedelic properties of shamanistic medicines.
Two books stand out as seminal from this time. ‘Ayahuasca Analogues’ by J.Ott, and ‘Ayahyasca Visions’ by Pablo Amaringo and Luis Eduardo Luna. It was perhaps only with the publication of ‘Ayahuasca Visions’ by Pablo Amaringo and Luis Eduardo Luna that the rich levels of meaning, knowledge and tradition connected with the indigenous Ayahuasca universe became evident. This was because the Ayahuasca was spoken of from the perspective of an Ayahuasquero – someone who had immersed themselves for many years within the culture of Ayahuasca practices and the accrued, empirical knowledge of countless generations of people working with the Ayahuasca potion. The phenomenology and shamanistic practices of the plants takes precedence in this information. The bias of knowledge is in furthering the internal horizon with the aid and agency of plant spirits and other intelligences accessible through the ambassador of the Ayahuasca.
‘Ayahuasca Analogues’, by Ott, revealed the exciting prospect of developing Ayahuasca-type synergystic potions from plants in boreal climates. The book is composed of potentially useful plants that are identified as containing either DMT, 5-Meo DMT, and beta-carbolines. Analogues are plants or chemicals used in place of the traditional constituents of the ayahuasca brew. In the perspective of this book, analogues can produce an ‘ayahuasca-effect’. Two of the most common are Peganum harmala and Mimosa hostilis, as replacements for the B. caapi vine, and DMT-containing admixture plants, respectively. It discusses the prospect of Ayahuasca-analogues preventing psychedelic prohibition, and ushering in a pan-Gaian entheogenic revival. Whilst the book is an incredible contribution to human knowledge, it does present certain axioms that, in light of further research, could be analysed further.
Through ‘analogues’, many have experienced profound healing and accessed visionary states not entirely unlike those produced by traditional ayahuasca brews, and most agree that modern analogue plants are extremely powerful and deserving of respect. However, analogue brews are not the same as Ayahuasca and deserve unique status. This is because experienced ayahuasca drinkers who have also had the opportunity to drink ayahuasca admixture brews, such as tea made from Syrian rue and Mimosa, generally conclude that the effects are different.
And infact, many ‘Ayahuasca analogues’ are plants with their own histories and traditions as shamanistic catylists. They have their own names. Calling unique plant potions ‘Ayahuasca analogues’ encourages a uncreative approach to the specific identies and properties of other medicine plants. Different plants, such as Jurema (Mimosa Hostilis), Haoma (Syrian Rue) and Golden Wattle (Acacia) have their own names and their own unique teachings, if one is working with the plant and not a highly refined isolate.
Ott, in his ‘Ayahuasca Analogues’ book describes a series of experiments where he works to lower the beta-carboline component of the tea to a point where it is simply enough to allow tryptamines to be orally active. So, using the bare minimum of Caapi, and focusing only on the visionary DMT effects as the “main event” can result in the impression that Caapi and Rue, or any MAOI are similar and interchangeable. This view of the spiritual and entheogenic unimportance of the beta-carbolines has been assumed by many who have followed:
“Through the hard and potentially dangerous work of back yard shamans and amature ethnobotanists, any plants have been discovered that have the alkaloids necessary to produce the ayahausca effect…. The ayahuasca effect is simply the inhibition of enzymes in the body that normally degrade ingested DMT, allowing the DMT to pass though the body altering consciousness without being destroyed by the body’s enzymes.”
- Chen Chow Dorge
But Ayahuasca is not ‘simply’ a vehicle for DMT. This is over-simplified to the point of fallacy. The Ayahuasca vine itself could only be considered a simple ‘inhibitor of the enzymes’ if it were without its own experiential and bio-active dimension.
Ayahuasca is not an ‘effect’. It is the name of a plant, and the tea made from the plant. And its effects are unique. The indigenous Amazonian perspective is that Ayahuasca is the B.caapi vine, and the admixture plants are her “helpers.” It is no accident that the brew is called “Ayahuasca,” the name of the vine. Most of the common native names for the brew — Ayahuasca, Yage, Caapi, Natema, Caapi, Dapa, Mihi, Kahi, Pinde, Nixi, etc — are also names for the Vine, whereas there is no record of any group naming the brew for the tryptamine-containing admixtures. It took many decades for the importance of the admixture plants even to be recognized by ethnobotanists, because every indigenous group recorded as using Ayahuasca stressed the Vine, and not uncommonly use Vine alone, and admixtures vary widely while the Vine is the common denominator.
A DMT-centric view of Ayahuasca neglects the powerful influence of the beta-carbolines. The psychopharmacology of the beta-carbolines, in their specific and fluctuating levels within the vine, is poorly understood both pharmacologically and experientially in the West, and its role underappreciated by many psychonautic western researchers.
The Ayahuasca vine is not merely a facilitator for a DMT experience. It is a profound entheogenic plant teacher in its own right, and patterns any other plant taken with it according to its unique character. Although not considered ‘psychedelic’ to an conventional, LSD orientated Western standard, the vine is notheless capable of producing profound noetic experiences, visions, amplified dreams, anti-depressive effects, and both physical and spiritual cleansing. This is why in the Amazon it is often used by itself, or with many other plants. The vine is also known as a bearer of THH, which is a minimal MAOI, but generates receptor sites for serotonin thus producing a long lasting antidepressant effect. THH occurs in much greater concentration in B. caapi than in other plants bearing ß-carbolines, such as Peganum harmala (Syrian rue). THH may be (according to Dr Alexander Shulgin) completely absent from Syrian Rue. This is just one example how each plant has their own unique signature, chemically speaking. This doesn’t even cover the differences in spiritual character.
This dynamic aspect, the vine as an ambassador of the plant kingdom, is part of the very beauty of Ayahuasca traditions, which is corroded by a view of the vine as a mere delivery system for DMT.
The idea that a combination of plants results in a simple ‘ayahuasca effect’ depicts a vision of plants as simple repositories of alkaloids. The reality is each plant has its own unique biochemical signature, and this is what gives a plant its ‘character’ when consumed.
To briefly pay homage to the indigenous vision (the wisdom accured over millenia of first-hand phenomenological shamanistic experiences)… Plants are not simple repositories of chemicals. They are living dyanmic systems, organisms, which, when accessed from an entheogenic state of mind, reveal themselves as ‘plant-teachers’.
Changa & Ayahuasca
To highlight the issue of cultural appropriation, recently, an interesting article has appeared on the internet penned by Chen Cho Dorge, claiming an ‘Evolution of Ayahuasca’. www.realitysandwich.com/changa_evolution_ayahuasca … discussing ‘changaya‘, a smoking mixture made from a DMT-rich alkaloid extract soaked into herbal carrier, sometimes including dried, potentised B-caapi leaf, the article rolls with the idea that the reader agree that this smoking mixture is Ayahuasca.
The article relays a definition of Ayahuasca which intentionally attempts to sever the word ‘Ayahuasca’ completely from the plant and its indigenous lineages, and asserts that the reader think of Ayahuasca as a DMT based ‘ayahuasca-effect’. It is a paradigm that is the logical outcome of a view of Ayahuasca where the role of the Ayahuasca vine is strongly overlooked. The early 1990’s wave of entheogenic literature was very DMT-centric. Such an view has begun to lead onto the attitude that smoking DMT or Changa is ‘the evolution of Ayahuasca’ or ’smokable Ayahuasca’.
In many peoples minds this is a form of cultural appropriation, because even though there is this push to call the smoke some sort of evolution of Ayahuasca, it removes the central role of the Ayahuasca vine as a medicinal tea and purgative, and makes the Ayahuasca vine – at the very most- a secondary ingredient.
“The sacred medicine that has historically provided incredible transformations in those who drink it has itself transformed. It has become Changa… Changa is quite possibly one of the most amazing innovations in the technology of the sacred in our lifetime.”
- Chen Chow Dorge
To claim any plant combination that enables DMT to become orally active is ‘Ayahuasca’, or more, that the DMT effect = ‘Ayahuasca effect’ = Ayahuasca itself, is trouble on grounds of cultural appropriation, because it ignores a living indigenous tradition, language, etymology, folklore, taxonomy. It is a conflation:
Conflation occurs when the identities of two or more individuals, concepts, or places, sharing some characteristics of one another, become confused until there seems to be only a single identity — the differences appear to become lost. In logic, the practice of treating two distinct concepts as if they were one does often produce error or misunderstanding — but not always — as a fusion of distinct subjects tends to obscure analysis of relationships which are emphasized by contrasts.
A refined DMT alkaloid extract from acacia or mimosa (in the great majority of cases, extracted with non-lab grade petrochemicals), absorbed via the burning of a herbal carrier (which may or may not include caapi leaves), is a very different matter than imbibing an aqueous solution of the entire water soluble aspect of the plants. Such a smoking blend may be profound, entheogenic, and, if made cleanly enough and taken with intention and preperation, could be cleansing and healing.
But nobody in South America, the thousands of people working regularly with the tea as a sacrament, shamanistic tool or healing medicine, would recognise Changa as Ayahuasca. Changa is a tryptamine rich smoking mixture, where the actual Ayahuasca – the beta-carboline rich vine – may be slightly present or completely absent from Changa depending on the recipe.
Unless we want to inadvertantly decimate a living taxonomical, historical, and indigenous definition, it is useful to learn the individual names of entheogenic plants and not conflate them. With so little indigenous knowledge left in the world, we would do well to respect and preserve the diversity of knowledge, language and tradition.
To iterate, this is not a moral issue, of what is ‘better or worse’, ‘right or wrong’, its about taxonomy and language, and the accompanying paradigms around plant teachers.
Theres a difference in paradigm between an approach that looks at Ayahuasca as a DMT carrier, looks at the plants as delivery systems of a certain number of chemicals we know to be powerfully entheogenic, or looks at Ayahuasca through a systemic or ecological view, looks at the plants as being highly complex signals, highly complex communications, highly complex identities, where the powerful entheogenic substances like DMT and the beta-carbolines, are modulated, signatured and patterned by the total sum of all elements within the plant. Because a plant is made from hundreds if not thousands of different molecular patterns, all of which interact, all of which make up the plants own ‘true name’.