Tag Archives: Shamanism

Animistic Revival and Psychoactive Plants

In doing research for the new working group on psychoactive plants and religion, I came across an article by Ralph Metzner published in the Eleusis journal in 1997.  In it, he puts forward the premise that a revival of animistic worldviews is necessary to combat the exploitation and destruction of the ecosystems of which we are ourselves part, and that psychoactive plants and the shamanic systems of knowledge within which their use has been situated are very likely to play a distinct role in any such radical change.  Though the article was published in ’97, it’s no less relevant or timely now than it was then, and I found it distinctly inspiring.  Having written recently on animistic worldviews and their relationships to an embedded and immediate sense of ecology, it makes me downright enthusiastic to read other work like this!

Person, Place, and Sacrament: Cross-Cultural Healing and Transformation in the Ayahuasca Shamanism of Iquitos, Peru

In Iquitos, Peru, Westerners[1], often described as ayahuasca tourists, seek out both indigenous and mestizo shamans who will, for a price, lead them in ceremonies where participants partake of a psychoactive brew.  The shamans range from the truly knowledgeable to the outright opportunist, and the Westerners range from sincere pilgrim to hedonistic tourist.  What is not surprising within these ceremonies is that some Westerners feel they get nothing from the experience but a disorienting and disappointing series of colors and images, most often coupled with violent and unpleasant bodily effects.  With the vast cultural differences in worldview, etiology of illness, methodology of healing, understandings of the spiritual, cosmological frames for reality, and even ontological structures of the real, it is far less surprising that there are failures to mediate these gaps than that, with some degree of regularity, there are successes in these mediations.  A number of recent research initiatives into this phenomenon, along with decades of consistent anecdotal evidence, have begun to show that, for all of the critiques that can be leveled against the practice of ayahuasca tourism, there are a surprising number of reports of meaningful healing, personal transformation, and expressions of therapeutic benefit (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005).

It is my intention in this paper to present a series of individually composed descriptive sections, outlining the three fundamental factors at play in these shamanic “healing spaces.”  Such a “healing space” in the scope of this discussion can be understood as the space of dialogue, negotiation, and encounter that is manifested between healer and patient within an ayahuasca ceremony.  Endeavoring to establish a sense of Place, I will begin with a brief history of Iquitos, and an outline of its more modern composition.  Continuing from this, I will turn to a sketch of Persons, including mestizo shamans, Shipibo shamans, and Western seekers as they participate in ayahuasca ceremonies.  This discussion will entail an overview of the etiologies of illness and a general outline of distinct cultural understandings and expectations that inform the participation in these ceremonies for many members of each cultural group.  I will then examine the nature of the ayahuasca brew in terms of cognitive psychology, in an effort to understand how the psychoactive substance plays its role in the establishment of a cross-cultural healing space.  Finally, I intend to propose Michael Taussig’s notion of Montage in terms of ayahuasca shamanism (1991), and Joanna Overing’s notions of the shaman as a “maker of worlds” (1990), as anthropological models that reach toward a theory of shamanic action in these cross-cultural healing spaces.  The varied forces at play in the history of Iquitos, the diverse cultural backgrounds of those persons involved, and the striking phenomenology of the experience of ayahuasca, all find a powerful, and mutually resonant, metaphor in the ideas of collage, montage, and bricolage.  It is my intention to explore the possibility that the mechanisms of montage and world-making may draw elements from personal background, historical and cultural place, and the phenomena of the ayahuasca experience itself, to create a space for healing that is able to be effective cross-culturally.  It is not my intention at any point to attempt to transcend the reality of distinct cultural obstacles to shared conceptions of healing, spirituality, and transformation, but rather to suggest that it is just these cultural obstacles and distinctions that can be worked within and through, to act as the components of a newly composed, dynamic, and adaptive shared understanding, within the space of the ceremony.  It is an engagement that is less concerned with the specific mechanisms of how shamans heal, and more with how they create and make use of a particular kind of transformational, even liminal, space, where, among other things, healing can occur.

More than any other single aspect, the river defines the city of Iquitos.  The river mediates – dividing, joining, marking boundaries and troubling them – between the forest and the city, the monte and the ciudad (Beyer 2009: 307).  The geographical location of the city has situated it as an economic, historical, and socio-cultural crossroads unlike any other in the Peruvian Amazon.  Its component parts in terms of persons, cultures, and their histories, come together as a collage of elements.  These elements are never wholly subsumed by, or transformed into, one another, and yet are in constant and immediate contact, as parts of a single, mutually-informing, composite and constructed whole.  Indigenous, mestizo, and white persons – with histories that have been as broad as they have been bloody – all play roles in the making of this place.  Colonialism and the rubber trade have left their marks deeply on the city and its population, with mestizo and ribereño cultures plagued by discrimination and grinding poverty.  Sorcery, like poverty, is an inescapable fact of mestizo life in Iquitos, with each of these exacerbating, and in some ways giving rise to, the other.  But poverty and sorcery do not provide the whole of the picture, though they do color and underlie many of its realities.  Shamanism has flourished in Iquitos, in part to counter just this same sorcery, but also as a source of healing for those who cannot afford, or cannot be treated meaningfully by, Western biomedicine.  Such a flourishing of shamanism has given the city a reputation as a powerful center of spiritual activity.  The discourse surrounding the spiritual power of local shamans has spread, both through anthropological literature and from the more hyperbolic claims of psychedelic enthusiasts, into the currents of drug, New Age, and other sub-and-counter cultures of the West, drawing an increasing number of seekers, tourists, and pilgrims to the riverside city.  It is possible to understand the city’s draw as a manifestation of what Allan Morinis has described of other pilgrimage destinations more generally as a kind of “spiritual magnetism” (1992: 5), where the fascination with a particular destination reaches beyond its initial social and cultural boundaries.

Ayahuasca stands out as the single-most sought after ‘hallucinogenic’ experience to be found in the discourse surrounding Iquitos as a tourist or pilgrimage destination.  Shamans and ayahuasqueros, or those claiming these and similar titles, are able to provide this service for a fee.  Acting as an avenue of economic advancement, such a provision of services has led to an emergent phenomenon of ayahuasca shamans who, instead of, or not primarily, working within their own communities, are dedicated to working with and for ayahuasca tourists (Proctor 2001).  Such tourism has been vehemently decried by a number of anthropologists as exploitative and dangerous, calling into question both the motives of the tourists and the qualifications and ethics of these putative shamans.  Undeniably, much of this critique is well founded.  And yet, here again, economic opportunism and Western consumerism do not paint a full picture.  Research and case studies are beginning to show that while the pejorative sense of ‘tourist’ is potentially applicable to some, the idea of ‘pilgrim’ may be more useful in understanding the phenomenon under investigation when speaking of Westerners making their way to a place abroad, especially as they go in search of healing and transformation[2].  Certainly, spiritual-consumerism, an ‘orientalist’ (Said 1979) fascination with the remote Other, and broad misconceptions about the history and nature of shamanism all play very distinct roles in the way in which Western seekers conceive of the ayahuasca-shamanic experience of which they go in search.  There are, however, also very distinct structural affinities between this phenomenon and religious pilgrimage, and even the discourses of religious conversion.  In some ways, the very composite nature of the city of Iquitos, the phenomenology of the ayahuasca experience, and the intentions, preconceptions, and agencies of the persons involved reflect one another, producing a unique sense of place.  Such a place is simultaneously physically, socio-culturally, and historically situated, and yet works through, or even transforms, these forces and factors into something that is more than simply their sum.

A Sense of Place

Though the site which was to become Iquitos was initially established in the 18th century as a Jesuit mission, it was not until the 1840’s that the Iquitos Indians settled there with their white patrón (Stanfield 1998: 30), founding the city in its modern economic and historical context.  Located near the confluence of the Nanay and Amazon rivers, and less than eighty miles from where the headwaters of the Ucayali and Marañón themselves converge, Iquitos has been, from the very beginning, located at a key geographical point for trade flowing through the Peruvian Amazon.  Class and racial divisions, still evident today, were likewise present from the beginning, where a small white elite economically, socially, and politically dominated and oppressed the significantly more numerous indigenous and mestizo populations (Ibid. 30).  Though Iquitos was well situated for commerce, until the advent of the Rubber Boom, the city remained relatively small.  By 1864, however, little more than twenty years from its founding, steamboats, factories, docks, and manufacturing centers were brought to the city by British companies and the Peruvian navy, bringing rapid growth with them (Ibid. 31).  As the demand for rubber increased throughout the world, Iquitos was inundated with thousands of new immigrants, decimating indigenous populations via violence, slavery, and disease, and radically altering the political and cultural realities of those who remained (Ibid. 36).  By 1905, Iquitos was a booming port town, where

Indians and partially acculturated cholos formed the working class, Chinese merchants and restauranteurs figured prominently among the petty retailers, while European merchants controlled the most lucrative wholesale trade.  Along the muddy streets, one could see – along with the harried Indian porters and the pigs routing through garbage – newcomers from Germany, Brazil, Spain, Italy, France, England, China, Portugal, Morocco, Columbia, Ecuador, as well as a few from North American and Russia. (Ibid. 108)

Notably, it was not only the swelling population, systemic racism, and the acculturative impact of Western goods that so distinctly shaped much of what modern Iquitos was to become.  The techniques of rubber tapping themselves, as they were practiced in the Amazon, played a significant role.  Tapping a Hevea tree, which produced a finer quality of latex, was something that could be done sustainably, where a single tapper, working in relative isolation, could tend a few hundred trees at a time, spread over many dozens of acres of forest.  The trouble with this was that even with a hundred trees or more, Hevea trees, while sustainable, could only yield roughly 5-7 pounds of dry rubber per tree annually.  On the other hand, Castilloa trees, while they had to be felled, killing the tree, could produce upwards of 200 pounds of latex in a matter of days.  The caucho model of scouring the forest for these immense trees caused the vast majority of rubber tappers to be constantly wandering, untraceable, forever in search of these lucrative but highly perishable resources.  As Stanfield says, “The mobility necessary for caucho collection resulted in a less stable lifestyle, one that proved highly disruptive for the caucheros, the environment, and Amerindians alike” (1998: 24).  It was in large part this wandering of the caucheros, however, and the contact with indigenous peoples that it facilitated, that played a significant role in the cross-cultural sharing of shamanic techniques that, at least initially and in part, lead to the vegetalismo shamanism of the mestizo population in Iquitos (Beyer 2009: 301)[3].

When the Rubber Boom did finally collapse around 1912, it was due, again, to the details of harvesting the latex from the trees.  Hevea trees are susceptible to a particular form of leaf blight that is common in the Amazon, making plantations of them unfeasible, as the blight passes from tree to tree.  However, in Southeast Asia, India, and Africa, this blight does not exist.  Vast plantations of the sustainable Hevea trees were able to be planted in these locations, and as they both produced a finer quality latex than the Castilloa trees and did not require anything like the same labor to acquire from the forest, the costs of the latex from these plantations so drastically undercut the Amazonian market that it simply could not compete.  Almost overnight, the boom went bust.  The commerce that had sustained Iquitos vanished, and thousands of migrants and tappers were suddenly without any other home, and without economic prospects.  Some, certainly, returned to their original homes, but many moved to Iquitos, or slightly up and down river from the city, establishing small settlements near the banks of the river.  Swidden gardens, fishing, foraging in the forest, and game hunting became – much like those of the lives and homes they had left behind – the economic survival strategies for thousands of people, but now without the social and cultural infrastructures that had supported these ways of life prior to the boom.  These conditions have changed little, even to the present day.  As Beyer remarks of the continuing economic divisions and juxtapositions in the life of the city:

The contradictions remain.  The people who inhabit the jungles surrounding Iquitos have no electricity or running water except the river.  Yet they can watch the latest North American programs on blaring old televisions when they come to town, by dugout canoe, to pick up supplies or sell jungle produce. (2009: 293-294)

Traditional ways of living stack up next to modern technologies, the selling of plants and produce gathered from the forest takes place jostled up against satellite dishes, laptops, cell phones (Ibid. 293).

These disparities point toward the poverty that gives rise to the practices of sorcery that so mark life in Iquitos, and as is true of many indigenous cultures of the Amazon, envy is, in many ways, at the root of it.  Though the emotion of envy itself is not necessarily thought to be the direct cause of misfortune, envy, resentment, and jealousy – all encapsulated by the term envidia – are where the desire to cause harm, and to inflict suffering on another begins.  As Beyer suggests, in Iquitos, “Life is perceived as a zero-sum game.  To receive more than a fair share of good is necessarily to deprive another” (2009: 137).  It is poverty and its attendant miseries, however, that underlie much of the desire to make use of sorcery in social settings.  Most mestizo inhabitants of the city have little to no expectation or hope of economic advancement.  Education is extremely limited, and the classist and racist structures in the city keep many, if not most, of the inhabitants from receiving even what is potentially available.  Medical care is virtually unavailable, whether due to the doctors’ inability to understand or deal with culturally-described illnesses, or due more pragmatically to the inability of the patients to pay for expensive prescriptions.  Caught up in the “social disintegration that marks this culture of poverty” (Dobkin de Rios 1972: 65), jealousy over love rivals, the uncertainty of being able to acquire even basic necessities, and domestic instability of all kinds ensure that want and need are constant companions in all social interaction.  When these needs and desires are not able to be met, but the needs or desires of another seem to be, the disparity is not one that can be written off as random chance.  As with many indigenous and mestizo societies of Amazonia, everything that happens is considered to have been intended by someone or something.  Bad luck in business is not a sorry happenstance, but an evil fortune sent by a brujo, the manifestation of someone’s envy or resentment for some perceived disparity, or breach of egalitarianism (Beyer 2009: 132).  When snake bites, falls, and bad machete accidents occur, it is not a question of how such a thing happened, but is rather a question of why (Luna 1986: 120), or, perhaps more explicitly, why me and who was responsible.

Sorcery and poverty are in many ways the boundary terms for mestizo life in Iquitos, providing both its shape and limits.  In the Peruvian Amazon, being mestizo “is a complex identity, a form of hybridity, contradictory and ambivalent” (Beyer 2009: 294).  Though ostensibly referring to those of “mixed blood,” the reality is that “mestizo” covers a wide range of persons, from acculturated indigenous peoples to the varying mixtures of white and indigenous lineages, and pertinent to life in Iquitos, the varying shades of the color of skin (Luna 1986: 31).  This hybridity echoes the city itself in some ways, situated as it is on the river, which is the essential mediator between city and forest.  If the river negotiates the bounds of city and forest, the mestizo identity negotiates the boundaries between indigenous and white, in some cases incorporating both, and in others marking them as distinct (Beyer 2009: 307).  The river, again, being the dominant feature, it is perhaps no surprise that a term often interchangeable with mestizo is ribereño, or “riverbank dweller” (Ibid. 296).  In reality, ribereño culture extends far beyond the mestizaje, being composed of a broad range of people of many different ethnic or historical origins, all living in very similar ways.  Speaking Spanish, wearing European clothing, making and working in swidden gardens, hunting, fishing, foraging in the forest, and traveling the river in peque-peque and/or dugout canoes are all the hallmarks of ribereño culture in the Peruvian Amazon (Ibid. 297).  As noted previously, the origins of this pattern of living are in many ways the result of the collapse of the Rubber Boom, rubber tappers heading back toward the city, and migrants with nowhere else to go, establishing new lives on the banks of the river, near enough to the city for trade, but far enough to carve out a living from the land.

Though the majority of the population of Iquitos is culturally mestizo, a segment of the population does self-identify as indigenous.  Shipibo women can often be seen selling handcrafts and wares by the side of the street (Fotiou 2010: 29), and a number of successful Shipibo shamans have migrated upriver from Pucallpa to be nearer the tourist clientele (Ibid. 121).  Though there are other indigenous groups that have historically lived – and still live – nearer Iquitos than the Shipibo, the Shipibo who have migrated to Iquitos are particularly relevant in the discourse surrounding ayahuasca shamanism.  Having a reputation as the most powerful ayahuasqueros (Ibid. 29), Shipibo shamans are sought out by both Westerners and mestizos alike.  Though many of the healing techniques made use of by Shipibo shamans are similar to those used by mestizo shamans, the foundational cosmologies and theories through which Shipibo shamans conceive of and perform their work differ in significant ways from those of mestizo shamans.  Cultural differences, both in regard to cosmological structures and social life, are certainly present between mestizo and indigenous inhabitants of the city.  However, as described before in terms of ribereño culture, what marks out difference between indigenous and mestizo in the daily life of Iquitos is not necessarily visible characteristics, nor the claims to “blood” or lineage.  As Beyer states, “some Indians have European ancestors, and many mestizos do not.  The criteria defining these two groups are cultural, and, increasingly, socioeconomic” (2009: 295).  This is not to suggest that indigenous identities are so porous as to become undifferentiated from mestizo identities, but rather that these identities may be defined more by those living them, than by externally ascertainable or assignable criteria.

Whether in search of shamanic healing or some other diversion, Westerners arrive in Iquitos by the bus full, driven in from the single open-air airport, past the rusted hulks of abandoned planes out in the tall grasses beyond the landing strip.  Ecotourism, drug tourism, and sex tourism are all well known features of the tourist-trade in Iquitos, and though these kinds of tourism are beyond the scope of this paper, to what degree there is overlap and interplay with the forms of tourism under discussion is certainly a worthy subject for further investigation.  Though many terms have been suggested for the phenomenon wherein Westerners arrive in the Amazon to participate in shamanic rituals – not the least of which is ‘drug tourism’ as put forward by Marlene Dobkin de Rios in a number of publications – in this paper I intend to make use of Fotiou’s term ‘shamanic tourism’ (2010: 2).  Though undoubtedly there are Westerners for whom the somewhat pejorative sensibility of ‘drug tourist’ is appropriate, there are many others for whom the motivations that they self-report do not lend themselves to its applicability.  As Michael Winkelman says of his case studies among just these kind of ‘shamanic tourists’

Contrary to the characterization as “drug tourists,” the principal motivations can be characterized as: seeking spiritual relations and personal spiritual development; emotional healing; and the development of personal self-awareness, including contact with a sacred nature, God, spirits and plant and natural energies produced by the ayahuasca. (2005: 209)

Self-reported motivations such as these belie the notion that the intentions for use are “simply to get high” (Dobkin de Rios 2009: 166), and while such hedonistic pursuits may be the case for some tourists, it cannot be supposed that this is the case for all, or even necessarily the majority, of them.  Repeated case studies and anthropological field work have suggested that the motivations for these tourists are not exclusively hedonistic in nature, but seem to reflect deeply felt desires and drives toward enhanced spirituality, healing, and personal transformation (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005).  To that end, the other often considered term, ‘ayahuasca tourism,’ will not be made use of either.  Though it, like ‘drug tourism,’ is likely to describe some of those participating in these experiences, in the sense that what is sought out is more akin to transformation than simply to the seeing of visions, the term ‘ayahuasca tourism’ shifts the focus of the participants’ intentions from the spiritual to the phenomenological, making the term reductive and inhibiting its utility.  It is worth noting that the terminology of ‘tourist’ is problematic, and though this paper will make use of ‘shamanic tourist’, the term ‘tourist’ itself does retain a trace of preemptive judgment about the goals of a given Western seeker.  A tourist, in these cases, is as likely to be a pilgrim, a term which may present a less biased and more nuanced understanding of the goals, especially in line with the stated motivations, of Westerners seeking out these experiences[4].  However, supplanting the term tourist with that of pilgrim unfairly prejudices the debate on the other side as well.  To place the discussion on more neutral ground, the term ‘seeker’ will be used as a potentially viable substitute.  A tourist may simply be seeking diversion, while a pilgrim may be seeking the transcendent.  While I will not suppose to close the debate by inserting ‘pilgrim’ in as the descriptor of Westerners participating in ayahuasca shamanism in Iquitos, neither am I comfortable labeling them as simply ‘tourist.’  Though I will employ Fotiou’s term of ‘shamanic tourist’ from time to time in specific contexts, more broadly, when speaking of Westerners in Iquitos for the purposes of healing and transformation while working with an ayahuasca shaman, I intend to make use of the term ‘seeker’ to keep the discussion more terminologically aligned with the intentions of this investigation.

Finally, though Keith Basso’s work was performed in cooperation with the Apache in North America (1996), and thus geographically somewhat far afield from the current discussion situated in Peru, the powerful, almost lyrical, style of Basso’s work presents a way of understanding place, how it lives with people, how it is remembered, how it is known, and how it actively shapes lives, persons, and memories, such that it cannot be left absent from the discussion.  As noted early on, it is the river that most defines the city of Iquitos.  As the preceding discussions of geography, history, and socioeconomic situatedness have endeavored to show, the “making of place” is of the utmost importance in an understanding of the city.  The river is a physical force, but also a metaphoric boundary between the forest and the city, vital to ribereño lives, shaping their possibilities and prospects, sustaining and providing for daily needs, and acting as the mediatory presence between all other aspects of life, both self and Other.  Though mestizo culture may not reflect Apache in terms of complex place names and histories-in-the-landscape, I would argue that the landscape, its immediacy, its daily relevance, and its profound presence – especially in terms of the scale and power of the Amazon river itself – is central to the ways in which the places of social and cultural life are made in the Peruvian Amazon.  Iquitos is a crossroads, a place where cultures, peoples, rivers, forest, and city all meet, exchange with, and inform one another.  While the history of these meetings has often been brutal, it has no less established a place that is as much defined by the heterogeneous nature of its components as it is by their production of a whole.  The place of Iquitos is made by, and continues to shape, its inhabitants, as being a historical and socio-cultural crossroads, a boundary place much like the river which defines it.  That shamanism, a phenomenon explicitly linked with boundary states and mediation, should have arisen here as an experience that reaches beyond its cultural foundations and out into the Western imaginary is fully in line with the way in which place both shapes and is shaped by the lives of those who live within it.

A Shared Healing Myth

Whether shamanic ritual or a prescription for pills, sharing a belief in the causes and cures of illness is a crucial understanding to be held common between patient and healer.  A worldview that allows pathologies and the etiologies of particular illnesses to be meaningfully communicated, at least in part if not full, from the doctor, shaman, or healing specialist to a patient, regardless of the mode of operation of any particular treatment, has shown to be crucial for the efficacy of therapeutic relationships (Walsh 2007: 59).  If this is the case, how is it possible, then, for ayahuasca shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, to act as healers for Western seekers?  Westerners, whether they are in search of healing on physical, psychological, or spiritual levels, by and large do not share indigenous or mestizo worldviews.  This is not a suggestion that all Westerners can be meaningfully grouped together to imply a single common, or even dominant, understanding of the world in physical, psychological, or spiritual terms.  Western culture is composed of innumerable sub-cultures and micro-cultures, identities that are shaped and reshaped throughout the lifetimes of those who comprise them.  But even in the cases of those more ‘open’ to spiritual notions that may conflict with the broader assumptions of scientific rational-positivism and mechanistic views of the universe – such as New Age influenced sub-cultures, pagan and neo-pagan movements, and the like – Westerners are unlikely to share common notions of the ‘spiritual’ with the shamans they seek out.  Ideas of ‘energies,’ chakras, karma, martial-arts-influenced ideas of chi, and New Age terms like the ‘higher self’ find themselves mixed and matched with a great deal of novelty in the minds of many Western spiritual seekers, developing personal theories that are as much self-help rhetoric as they are spiritual paths (Beyer 2009: 353).  Such a statement is not meant to denigrate or cast any aspersions on the validity of any given personal spiritual insight, but rather to suggest that notions of the spiritual in Western parlance may have little in common with indigenous and mestizo notions of living spiritual entities such as the chullachaqui who haunts the forests, or the dangerous and seductive water-persons like the yukaruna.  To make use of a term common in modern anthropological discourse around a new “respect and relationship” animism, indigenous and mestizo shamans are far more likely to consider the spiritual world not in terms of mystical transcendence or self-realization, but more in terms of relationships with other-than-human-persons (Harvey 2006).  In similar ways, the categories of pop psychology and self-help – such as personal growth, emotional cleansing, and the like – that are often raised in the testimonies of Western seekers cannot be expected to be part of the worldviews of the indigenous and mestizo shamans.  These worldviews, while both ostensibly ‘spiritual’ in nature, leave open the question of how space for healing is to be established that can be meaningful and effective for both healer and patient.

Marlene Dobkin de Rios – a medical anthropologist whose work has been foundational in the study of ayahuasca, especially in and around the city of Iquitos – has been one of the most strident critics of ‘drug tourism.’  It is because of its distinct relevance to the subjects at hand, both thematically and locationally, that I will primarily focus on her work in this discussion, and by no means is it my intention to ignore the ideas or contributions of other anthropologists working along similar lines.  Her critiques of the phenomenon of ‘drug tourism’ continue to provide some of the greatest challenges to any possibility of meaningful cross-cultural healing in shamanic experience, especially in Iquitos.  Among these critiques, one of the most difficult to grapple with is the doubtable authenticity of the practitioners she has labeled ‘neoshamans’ (2009: 128)[5] – men (for it is almost without exception men instead of women) who have no formal shamanic training, who have not undergone the extremely rigorous traditional diets and apprenticeships, but nonetheless offer what they at least profess to be ayahuasca to unwary Westerners, whose own motivations and intentions may be similarly questionable.  Those that she describes as ‘neoshamans’ are, by and large, strict opportunists, with interest not in healing, but in the money to be made at the expense of naive Western seekers.  It is an enduring and unsolved problem, a phenomenon still readily found in Iquitos, which has the potential to leave real and long-lasting psychological and emotional damage in its wake.  Dobkin de Rios has also pointedly described ayahuasca and drug tourism as “merely a footnote to drug trafficking around the world” (Ibid. 169), suggesting that Westerners seeking out these experiences are “urban educated men and women who tour Latin American simply to get high” (Ibid. 166).  She has asserted that the majority of Western motivations for seeking out ayahuasca shamanic experience stem from “psychological states such as low self-esteem, values confusion, drug abuse… and chronic consumerism” (1994: 16).  Between the charlatanism of certain ayahuasqueros and the purported “empty self” (Ibid. 16) of the Western seeker, these critiques seem damning for any hope of engagement between healer and patient.  Indeed, more fully, she suggests

Unlike some anthropologists, who hope for a mutual learning experience culturally to occur between people who differ ethnically (see Geertz 1966), I think that there is little hope for communication between the drug tourists and the Amazonians. The Amazonians’ tradition of ayahuasca use is linked in a matrix dealing with the moral order, with good and evil, with animals and humans, and with health and illness, which has little correspondence or sympathy with the experiences of people in industrial societies. (Ibid. 18)

While there are myriad documented cases of the charlatanism she describes, and certainly an “empty self” may describe a number of Western seekers, this leaves, as Fotiou suggests, little space for any valid or meaningful spiritual experience (2010: 126), which is problematized by the remarkable number of reports of the efficacy of these cross-cultural shamanic healings.  But if research suggests that cross-cultural healing and the facilitation of personal transformation is not only viable, but accomplished with some degree of regularity, in these ayahuasca shamanic ceremonies (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005), how can this be reconciled with the critiques that Dobkin de Rios leverages?  If a shared healing myth does not exist between the healer and the patient, if the patient’s motives may not in all cases be ‘pure,’ and the healer’s authenticity and ethics are sometimes in doubt, how can the consistency with which healing does seem to be effected be accounted for?

Though an answer may not be easily suggestible, there are a number of ways in which these critiques can be addressed, if not wholly resolved.  The potential charlatanism of untrained ‘neoshamans’ is something that has been attested to by a significant number of anthropologists and even other well-established shamans.  In an interview, a well known Shipibo shaman named Guillermo Arévalo describes what he calls “folkloric shamansim” (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 203).  He opposes this to traditional shamanism, suggesting that “folkloric shamanism” has been designed to appeal to Western sensibilities, for the purposes of extracting money.  However, by that same token, Arévalo himself is the owner and operator of an ayahuasca lodge and retreat by the name of “Espiritu de Anaconda,” which is well known for its involvement with Western seekers, having been the subject of a number of articles, and even two feature-length documentary films.  In many ways, the “authenticity” of a given shaman may simply be something that has been decided in a similar way in indigenous societies: effectiveness.  Arévalo, in a separate interview, suggests that “Right now, in the Amazon, we can’t say that there’s any pure tradition.  It’s mixed” (Beyer 2009: 281), and as Fotiou suggests, some of the concerns over charlatanism in ayahuasca shamanism are based in “critiques that themselves suffer from naive notions of authenticity” (2010: 3-4).  This is not to downplay the reality of the harm that can be wrought by those who attempt to make use of powerful psychoactive substances without the proper training, especially when they are called on to act as the leader or safeguard in these situations.  Such actions can have very real and very dangerous psychological consequences for those involved.  Rather, it is to suggest that establishing authenticity in shamanic practice has traditionally been a troubling subject, even for indigenous communities.  Ultimately, it is those shamans who cannot heal, who diagnose illness incorrectly, or fall prey to other tell-tale signs of fraud, who are castigated, and suffer the loss of their clientele.  That this kind of self-regulation can prove effective in indigenous communities, of course, does not suggest that the transient nature of the tourist’s involvement affords the same opportunity for this kind of systemic self-correction.  It may however imply that opportunism and fraud are not phenomena that are wholly new to tourist-centric shamanic practice, either.

In his case study of the attendees of an ayahuasca retreat in Brazil, Michael Winkelman found that for many Western seekers, the motivations they gave for their desire to participate in an ayahuasca shamanic retreat were distinctly different than the consumerist-oriented “empty self” previously noted.  He states of these motivations and intentions that the primary reasons included

establishing spiritual awareness and relations and personal spiritual development. For many, the motivation included emotional healing, and for some, assistance in dealing with substance abuse issues. Others expressed the desire to get a personal direction in life, to engage in a personal evolution. Only one respondent mentioned hedonistic reasons, i.e. the visual effects produced by ayahuasca. (2005: 211)

This suggests that while the hedonism supposed of those who would “tour Latin America simply to get high” may hold for some of those seeking out these experiences, many others have motivations more in line with healing and personal transformation, hallmarks of many spiritual pursuits.  While Fotiou (2010) and Winkelman (2005) have some of the clearest data on the subject, a diverse range of anecdotal accounts can be put forward from many internet forums[6] and even feature-length documentaries (such as Vine of the Soul) that all suggest similar patterns of a desire for healing and transformation as the primary stated intentions for participating in these experiences.  Guillermo Arévalo, the Shipibo shaman noted previously, has stated of his personal experience with Westerners that

Principally, these tourists come to try to resolve personal problems. They say it is a self-encounter. They want to find the solution to their own problems and then to liberate themselves from those problems or the psychological traumas that they suffer. Others look for spiritual responses. They want to know the true spiritual path. (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 204)

These statements make it difficult to countenance the suggestion, put forward by a number of anthropologists, that a desire to participate in an ayahuasca shamanic ceremony is purely the product of a consumerist-driven need to fill an “empty self” with goods and experiences.  In many ways, this discourse describes many of the same themes that have been elaborated in the anthropology of pilgrimage, especially as it is compared to the modern tourist.  The questioning of the sincerity and authenticity of motivation that seem to be at the core of the critique of this kind of shamanic tourism are very resonant with many critiques leveled at tourism more broadly, and are subject to much the same problematization.  Engaging in such a problematization is beyond the scope of this paper, but see Morinis (1992) and Ivakhiv (2003) for more extensive treatments of the subject.

If the questions of the authenticity of both shamans and seekers have been addressed – though in no way closed or wholly answered – there remains perhaps the most significant obstacle in the path of the healer-patient relationship, bringing the discussion back around to where it began: the shared healing myth.  Though cultural expectations and understandings between shamans, both indigenous and mestizo, and the Western seekers who arrive in Iquitos are without a doubt distinct from one another, such expectations and understandings are not static, nor are they absolute.  As Fotiou suggests,

South American shamanism has always been about intercultural exchange and has drawn symbols and power from a variety of sources. More than sharing sociocultural content, ayahuasca shamanism provides an intercultural space for westerners and locals to dialogue. (2010: 4)

As can be seen in a wide variety of ethnographic material from the Peruvian Amazon, vegetalismo – mestizo shamanism – is voraciously syncretic[7] (Beyer 2009: 341), absorbing and transforming outside influences from sources as widely dispersed as technological advances, philosophy, metaphysical theory, psychology, science fiction, Christian eschatology, and New Age conceptions of the self. South American shamanism can be understood, broadly speaking, as a methodology of mediation with the Other, an ability of the ritual specialist to incorporate, transform, become, and resist the influences, ideas, and power of the Other.  To that end, while Western psycho-spiritual discourse may be populated by ideas not readily or originally available within the discourses of ayahuasca shamanism, many have become rapidly absorbed and integrated into the rhetoric of healing and transformation.  Beyer, like many other anthropologists and scholars[8], speaks of the mestizo shamans with whom he worked as making use of – side by side with water spirits and spirits of the animals – Martian teachers, aliens that spoke computer languages, and entities that could manipulate electro-magnetic forces (2009: 339).  And this movement is not only seen to occur in one direction.  Fotiou asserts that “there is a two-way exchange and westerners adopt shamanic discourse as well, especially one that involves relationships with non-human persons” (2010: 2).  In this way, the gap that exists between the healer’s worldview and the worldview of the patient can begin to narrow.  Incorporating and making use of not just the terminology, but also the interconnected concepts and their cosmological or ontological implications, of the Other-in-relationship provides a way, not around, but through the cultural barriers that might otherwise prevent a meaningful exchange from taking place.  A shared healing myth is a powerful component of any therapeutic experience, and while Westerners and shamans may not participate in identical, or even similar, cultural backgrounds, it may be possible for the dialogue between them to establish a new, dynamic healing myth as they proceed.

If it is possible to establish a shared, dynamic, healing myth between healer and patient within an ayahuasca ceremony, then the cultural preconceptions and expectations that seem most useful to explore toward an understanding of how these might come together seem to be the etiology of illness and the theories underlying the methods of healing.  In short, what causes illness or distress, and what alleviates the same, will act as windows into the distinct cultural categories of healer and patient.  The causes and cures will be examined for mestizo shamans, Shipibo shamans, and Western seekers in turn.  This examination will be significantly truncated for the sake of brevity and space, though it could readily support a much more extensive investigation.

Luis Luna, in his extensive work on vegetalismo, has described an etiology of illness among mestizo shamans that covers a lengthy list of sources from which one might be made to suffer some kind of disease or sickness (1986: 120).  Needs of space prohibit the reproduction of the rather extensive discussion here, but by way of summary, the sources of illness can be broadly divided between two categories: spirits and humans.  Sorcery, in its way, is at the root of all illness, the question being only whether it was precipitated by an offended spirit, or a resentful human.  Spirits of specific plants, animals, and trees can all be sources of illness, though the spirits of the dead, the yakaruna of the river and the sacharuna of the forest can all be responsible for casting spirit darts, and even for abduction, both of souls and whole human-persons.  Humans can, likewise, be responsible for illness, sending witchcraft, causing bad luck, praying evil prayers, chanting evil spells, or even physically placing poison where it will come into contact with another.  Just as envidia is a social reality in mestizo life, so too is the notion that much of the spirit world is “basically hostile to human beings” (Ibid. 120), requiring constant vigilance, right action, and the intervention of specialists to maintain health and good fortune.  When health has been compromised from one of these hostile sources, it becomes necessary to seek out a shaman to work a cure.  While biomedicine, when available, is able to alleviate the symptoms of certain illnesses, it is important again to recognize that the important question being asked is less how one became ill, and more why.  Shamans have the ability to engage with an illness both to alleviate the physical difficulty, but also to address the social cause.  This is perhaps more evident if it is recognized that, as Luna asserts, “the idea of healing also includes the manipulation of spiritual forces in the alleviation of financial and emotional problems” (Ibid. 32), such that biomedically-addressable illnesses are not explicitly distinguished from psycho-spiritual, and even fortune-related, troubles in mestizo life.  The techniques employed to effect healing in these cases are very similar to Amazonian shamanic techniques more generally.  Songs – in this case, icaros – are sung, mapacho tobacco smoke is fumigated over the patient, rattles are shaken and made use of to direct spiritual energy by the shamans, and spirit-darts, or virotes, are sucked from the patient, the evil either being sent back to the source of the malevolence, or simply ‘away.’  It is worth noting that while animals, plants, and trees are considered as potential sources of illness, in mestizo life “sicknesses are almost universally caused by the malevolence of other people” (Beyer 2009: 132).  As described previously, envidia goes hand in hand with sorcery, and it is primarily envy, jealousy, and resentment that are thought to be the real source behind the significant majority of illness in mestizo social spheres.

Traditionally among Shipibo shamans, while both spirits and humans are likewise considered as potential sources of illness, the ways in which one might become ill from these sources are distinct from the etiologies present among mestizo shamans.  Much of the shamanic discourse around healing among the Shipibo is concerned with the patterns of quené, or complex geometric designs as they are envisioned by shamans during ayahuasca ceremonies (Gebhart-Sayer 1985, Illius in Langdon 1992, Brabec de Mori 2009).  These designs are understood by the Shipibo shamans to be capable of both healing and harming, such that a patient may be afflicted by the quené sent by a spirit or sorcerer, but then ultimately healed or restored by the quené applied by a healing shaman.  These designs are intimately related to songs, sung and whistled by the shaman as he or she goes about the process of healing, or even by the sorcerer during harming.  The songs, especially when performed in the context of ayahuasca ritual spaces, elicit these complex patterns and visions, as a form of mediation with the spirits.  As Illius asserts, “The sick person’s designs are distorted and must be restored to return to health,” (in Langdon 1992: 65-66), suggesting that these patterns are in some ways bound up with the composition of the person.  Other authors similarly note that when the patterns and designs of these songs have been used to cure or heal, they are “sealed” into the patient, becoming part of their makeup.  When new illnesses occur, or sorcery is worked against a patient, even other shamans from the one who originally healed the patient can see the healing work that was done, and can see the new illness or sorcery as a “smearing,” “clouding,” or “distortion” of these earlier designs.  While many of the techniques made use of by Shipibo shamans in healing – fumigation of mapacho tobacco smoke, the prescription of diets, the utilization of rattles and songs, and the sucking out of illness – may be similar to techniques utilized by other shamans in the Amazon, the way in which these illnesses are understood to operate – how these designs relate to spirits, shamans, and sorcerers, especially through song – is distinctly different.  Though certainly other Panoan peoples share certain similar understandings of these designs and their spiritual and therapeutic potentials (see Lagrou in Santos-Granero 2009 for an exploration of these themes among the Cashinahua), these ideas are not shared unilaterally by mestizo shamans by any means, and certainly are not found in the worldviews of Westerners who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies with these shamans.

Before discussing etiologies of illness and theories of the modes of healing among Western seekers, it seems prudent to address a question that lingers within any such discussion of Western involvement in shamanic experience: why shamanism?  There are many other spiritual paths available in the religious marketplace, many of which make claims to healing and personal transformation.  While undoubtedly certain residual colonialist attitudes about shamanism being ‘closer to nature’ – in the sense of indigenous peoples being supposed in the Western imagination to be ‘without culture’ – can be pointed to in the preconceptions of many Westerners, any such fascination with a ‘primitive’ other seems unlikely to sustain the degree of interest and enthusiasm that shamanism, in its many guises, has continued to excite.  Michael Harner has suggested that this sustained and increasing interest in shamanism is because “many educated, thinking people have left the Age of Faith behind them.  They no longer trust ecclesiastical dogma and authority to provide them with adequate evidence of the realms of spirit” (1990: xi), proposing instead that Western seekers tend to be more interested in directly experiencing and testing the “limits of reality,” since, as he states, shamanism is “a methodology, not a religion” (Ibid. xii).  Fotiou similarly asserts that

Ayahuasca experiences are attractive to Western people because, in a way, they give them direct access to the spiritual and the divine within. There is no intermediary as in organized religions. (2010: 130)

Even the terminological debates surrounding psychoactive substances reflect changing values and ways of understanding.  The term entheogen[9] has been circulated more recently, intended to imply something like “generating the divine within.”  The term has begun, at least within certain circles, to replace others like “psychedelic,” “hallucinogen,” “psychotomimetic,” and the heavily prejudicial “drug.”  While, on its own terms, “entheogen” too is prejudicial in the sense that it suggests a sacredness or spirituality to these substances that may still be open to debate, the intention in most cases is simply to shift thinking away from the more clinical and techno-scientific interpretations of these substances, and turn them more toward the understandings that have, in more traditional cultures, driven their use.  The difference between a drug, a psychedelic, and an entheogen, ultimately, is in how it conceived of and how it is used.  Though such an aside may seem peripheral, I would argue that an understanding of the words practitioners choose to describe their experiences directly impacts the question of “why shamanism.”  A direct, personal contact with these powerful experiences is an undeniable draw for many who have felt alienated by the strictures and dogmas of organized religion.  Whether through entheogens, trance-inducement by drumming, or other techniques designed to instigate experience beyond the bounds of normal, waking consciousness, the appeal of shamanism to precipitate healing, transformation, and communion with the spiritual or divine has a distinct and undeniable attraction for many Western seekers.

While undoubtedly many, if not most, Westerners participating in shamanic ceremonies tend to have biomedical understandings of disease, including notions of germs, bacteria, viruses, infection, genetic dispositions, and other similar concepts, it is not usually, or at least not primarily, these more physical or biological illnesses for which Westerners come to the Amazon in hopes of a cure.  The wide varieties of technologies and chemicals that are available to Western biomedicine are, in most cases, seen as sufficient for treating explicitly physical ills by most Westerners.  More common are psycho-spiritual complaints such as depression, anxiety, disaffection, alienation, and disconnection – a sense of being lost, or lacking something quintessentially ‘spiritual’ to give meaning or fulfillment to life.  Asked if he saw a spiritual or psychological crisis in European and North American communities based on those participants with whom he had interacted, the Shipibo shaman Guillermo Arévalo responded “That’s what I see. It is clear among many people. Indeed, many of them also suffer from depression. Others are enslaved by their work. Others are hooked into materialism and they have been neglectful of the spiritual part of themselves” (Dobkin de Rios trans. Rumrrill 2005: 204).  This is made clear again in the words these seekers make use of themselves, when describing their motivations for participating in ayahuasca-shamanic ceremonies.  As summarized by Winkelman, these are

seeking spiritual relations and personal spiritual development; emotional healing; and the development of personal self-awareness, including contact with a sacred nature, God, spirits and plant and natural energies produced by the ayahuasca. The motivation and perceived benefits both point to transpersonal concerns, with the principal perceived benefits involving increased self awareness, insights and access to deeper levels of the self that enhanced personal development and the higher self, providing personal direction in life. (2005: 209)

The illness, or psycho-spiritual lack, in the experience of these Western seekers is in many ways pointed to by the rhetoric used to describe motivations and benefits.  An unfulfilled or flagging spirituality and personal development, emotional wounds, and a distance or disconnect from the sacred – all of these seem to serve in the place of an etiology of illness in these cases.  While the terminology may ring of pop psychology and self-help, the illnesses engendered from these sources are insistent enough to warrant seeking help outside one’s own cultural boundaries, suggesting that the issues as they distress individual participants’ lives are real enough.  While disaffection or alienation may be a particularly culture-bound illness, it is not necessary to understand it as any less real than anorexia nervosa experienced by young women in the West (Beyer 2009: 152), or the threat of, and affliction caused by, sorcery that pervades so much of the social discourse in the Amazon.

This sketch, however, does not end neatly. The etiology of illness, coupled with the theories underlying the modes of healing, for shamanic worldviews, find logical compliment in one another.  That is to say that the causes of illness fall within a worldview that is matched by the modes of healing that are appealed to.  But for Western seekers with illnesses described as spiritual – those requiring emotional healing and personal transformation – complimentary modes of healing within their own culture do not seem readily available.  Whether this is due to an actual societal or cultural lack of a healing methodology, or due instead to the idiosyncrasies of personal taste and preference, these Western seekers find themselves with an illness or lack where the specialists involved in this potential methodology for healing, shamans, do not share the same understandings and expectations about the world.  Whether intentionally or no, the question of a shared healing myth returns.  Despite the fact that certain pieces of terminology and conceptual material do seem to cross cultural boundaries and allow a new healing myth to be dynamically created, the problem is not wholly resolved.  What facilitates this dynamic creation of a new healing myth?  Though both shamans and patients may make an effort to describe intentions and understandings to one another in terms that make sense to each, it is unlikely that every shaman and every patient have the time or the means to actively structure a full range of understandings that would supplant the need for a truly shared worldview.  To answer this, one of the original questions outlined in this investigation is drawn nearer – the possibility that it is less important to understand, in these cases, how shamans heal, than it is to understand how they make use of a particular kind of transformational space.  But to make such a suggestion worthwhile, it is first necessary to describe the actions of the brew, ayahuasca.

The Psychology of the Ayahuasca Experience[10]

This is perhaps the moral of the whole story.  The cross-personal commonalities exhibited in Ayahuasca visions, the wondrous scenarios revealed by them, and the insights gained through them are perhaps neither just psychological, nor just reflective of other realms, nor are they ‘merely’ a creation of the human mind. Rather, they might be psychological and creative and real.  But when we appreciate this, so much of the fundamental notions by which we view both mind and world have to be considerably altered. (Shanon 2002: 401)

While certainly all perception of and action in the world is to a large extent culturally situated, there are certain strictly cognitive effects of the ayahuasca brew that allow it to shake culturally inculcated structures and constants, radically unmaking the ego and identities of the participants for some finite duration during the experience.  The shaking of these constants places participants into a cognitive situation where they are more ‘open’ to the incorporation of ideas, suggestions, images, and ways of thinking that might otherwise seem alien and inassimilable to “normal” consciousness.  Charles Grob and Benny Shanon’s psychological analyses of ayahuasca’s effects provide a window into how psychoactive components of the brew alter both perceptive and emotional structures.  Many of the characteristics described by Grob hold true for altered states facilitated by entheogens in general, while those described by Shanon are specific to ayahuasca.

Grob outlines ten distinct characteristics “understood to be virtually universal to such altered state experience[s]” (in Metzner 2006: 75).  Though some of these are undoubtedly more relevant than others for the current investigation, as a brief overview, the characteristics he reports as “universal” fall into the following categories: 1) alterations in thinking, 2) alterations in time sense, 3) fear of loss of control, 4) changes in emotional expression, 5) changes in body image, 6) perceptual alterations, 7) changes in meaning or significance, 8) a sense of the Ineffable, 9) feelings of rejuvenation, and 10) hypersuggestibility (Ibid. 75-76).  Just this list alone goes some way toward understanding how a “shaking up” of consciousness might be precipitated in line with cross-cultural communication of meaning, but a few of these categories are worth noting specifically.  Changes in body image entail the “dissolution of boundaries between self and others” where an individual identity or ego-self is no longer understood to be wholly distinct from the surrounding world, and the persons in it (Ibid. 75).  When taken together with the experience of hypersuggestibility – which, as evidenced by the name, implies a profound increase in the capacity for suggestion to alter both perception and attitude – this indiscernability of distinct identity creates a situation in which ideas, even socio-culturally abnormal or uncommon ideas, can be incorporated with a marked rapidity.  As these ideas are suggested and incorporated, the potential for the meanings associated with them, and the significance of the ideas themselves, can take on an extraordinary weight, such that certain words, phrases, and images can profoundly shape both an immediate experience, and potentially a subsequently altered worldview.  If, as the entheogenic experience begins to close, a feeling of rejuvenation or rebirth is felt by the participant, the potential for the weight of suggestions made, or concepts encountered in the ceremony, to remain with the participant for a more extended duration is significantly enhanced.  Though no single characteristic of the entheogenic encounter alone presents a mechanism by which cross-cultural dialogues might effect healing, taken together as they act on a participant in a ceremony, such an outcome becomes more plausible.

If these aspects of enthogenic encounters in general have the potential to produce a space where the transformation of identity may occur, ayahuasca has a number of unique cognitive effects that allow it to act as a “perceptual bricoleur” (Beyer 2009: 235).  While an analysis of purely perceptual alterations under the influence of a psychoactive would do little to further an understanding of how a healing space is facilitated by employing ayahuasca, it is important to remember that these alterations of perception are, in most cases, matched by similar alterations in cognition.  This is to say that the psychological processes hinted at by the visual effects noted are not limited only to the visible percepts, but extend into the cognitive functions of the participants as well, such that while a given ‘hallucination’ may be recognized as such, it is also very often taken as simultaneously ‘real’ within the space of the ceremony (see Beyer 2009: 233 for examples of this phenomenon).

Benny Shanon outlines a number of cognitive-psychological effects of ayahuasca, only a very few of which will be able to be explored within the scope of this paper.  The most important of these, for the purposes of this discussion, are superposition and collage, the power of metaphor, and the Double-Face configuration.  The phenomenon of superposition can be described as one where a given set of ‘real’ objects coincide with, but are not overlapped or mutated by, visionary objects, with a semantically meaningful relationship between the two.  An example given by Shanon describes an experience wherein bodies were witnessed as hanging from a large tree.  The tree was ‘real’ in the sense that it corresponded to a tree that was visible and solid outside of the entheogenic experience, but the bodies that were hanging from the tree did not correspond to a reality able to be experienced outside of the altered state (2002: 78-79).  What is important to note in such a case is that the bodies were hanging from the tree, a relationship that, in effect, ‘makes sense’ for the coupling of bodies and trees, inasmuch as the bodies were not floating like balloons, dancing on the branches, or anything of the sort.  This is an example of what Shanon has described as a relationship of “collage” (Ibid. 79), insofar as the aspects of the vision were drawn both from something in the ‘real’ world as well as from the visionary experience, and yet combined in such a way as to produce a result that had semantic meaningfulness.  In line with the semantic meaningfulness of a particular vision, the power of metaphor stands out, according to Shanon, as “one of the most important mechanisms for novelty in cognition” (Ibid. 336).  In terms of cognitive psychology, Shanon describes metaphor as that feature of cognition which allows agents to “draw new distinctions and induce new ways of looking at things”, wherein meaningful features “are not selected out of prior, given semantic sets; rather, new semantic differentiations are made up and new semantic features are generated” (Ibid. 336).  Shanon proposes that ayahuasca plays directly upon this cognitive capacity for metaphor and the generation of novel semantic categories and connections, such that previously unrelated concepts and ideas can be drawn into relationship with one another in ways that are both meaningful and durable, potentially beyond the termination of the ayahuasca experience.  Closely associated with the capacity for metaphor to draw schematic sets into novel relationships with one another is the Double-Face configuration, where existing semantic content is recognized to bear secondary or tertiary meanings not previously experienced or expressed.  Shanon describes this as the mechanism that is at work in many puns and jokes, where a word, phrase, or even whole scenario is constructed and presented in such a way that the crux of the joke or pun lies in shifting the expected result or intention to suggest a novel connection between disparate semantic categories or domains.  Words that can mean multiple things, utilized in an identical phraseology, may impart different and diverse meanings, dependent on the context within which they are deployed.  Superimposing the meaning of a given articulation from one semantic domain onto another produces novelty in the more extended context.  Scenarios and images may suggest outcomes that can be suddenly inverted or transformed upon the interruption of a discordant piece of information not originally present.  Ayahuasca, Shanon suggests, plays on this capacity of language and image in cognitive apperception to present unexpected insights and interruptions into seemingly familiar conscious structures and ideational schemas.  This allows participants in an ayahuasca experience to understand long-held identity structures and inculcated cultural values in radically different ways, even to the point of begin able to choose to retain, modify, or abandon them.

A more full treatment of the data gathered by Shanon, the situations in which he gathered it, and the striking nature of both the commonalities and differences of the experiences reported by his informants cross-culturally is beyond the scope of this paper, but, however brief, the preceding has attempted to establish some of the cognitive effects charted in his study as they relate to the space of healing between patient and shaman in an ayahuasca ceremony.  When coupled with the “universal” characteristics of entheogenic experience as detailed by Grob, a broad outline emerges that suggests, from a psychological perspective, that cross-cultural communication and dialogue may prove to be a real possibility in an ayahuasca ceremony.  With this in mind, and considering the concepts of bricolage and collage that have both been raised in a psychological context, I intend now to return to montage and world-making in anthropological discourse, coming back to where the intentions of this investigation began.

Healing, Montage, and World-Making

This investigation has, internal to its own structure, attempted to act as a kind of montage, presenting fragments and selections from contexts seemingly distinct from one another, in order to produce an image from the component parts that come together to form a new whole.  A history of place, a traversal of the etiologies of illness among differing cultural groups, and the psychological effects of a psychoactive brew, have been drawn together, placed such that they are intended to simultaneously reflect one another, but still distinguish differences of origin and aim that in some ways make them largely incommunicable one to the other.  In the structure of the paper I have attempted to reproduce, in a limited way, the same montage or collage of factors that are present in the spaces of healing and transformation that shamans in Iquitos are asked to hold open for a wide variety of clients in an ayahuasca ceremony.  But why montage, as a form?  In a way it reflects a desire not to neatly fit these distinct factors into a false narrative, and an attempt to allow their mutual resonance to arise, or fail to arise, of their own accord, without wedging them uncomfortably into molds they may not adequately fill.  But perhaps more to the point, it is that it is montage itself that is the resonance between these factors, the play of montage and collage within the construction of each in its own terms, that acts as the commonality between these.  The city of Iquitos has been drawn from a wide variety of social, historical, cultural, and economic forces, a patchwork of indigenous, mestizo, and European elements, strung together to produce a place that is remarkable for its role as a crossroads and borderland.  Shamans have, perhaps definitionally, always been those to traverse any such borderlands, transgressing boundaries between self and other, merging, resisting, but above all mediating between these.  That the persons of indigenous and mestizo shamans should take up residence and ply their trade in a physical, historic, and economic crossroads should not seem in anyway surprising.  Nor should the presence of the Western others, as they seek out something definitively unavailable within their own cultures.  If Iquitos has historically been a crossroads – socially, economically, and culturally, though its function as such has been at times notoriously violent and cruel – then its continuing nature as such a crossroads, if now for different reasons and appealing to different needs or desires, should likewise not prove unexpected.  And as ayahuasca brings together healer and patient, it too acts, within the psychologies and cognitive structures of each, as its own force of collage and bricolage, restructuring and changing previous arrangements of ideas and concepts, integrating those which had perhaps previously seemed alien or incompatible.

But can montage be that mechanism, within a healing space opened and held by the shaman, that brings together aspects and elements of worldviews and conceptual categories, of life experiences and unspoken hopes, that can ultimately effect healing?  In his extraordinary Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man, Michael Taussig suggests in terms of ayahuasca ceremonies that

The ‘mystical insights’ given by visions and tumbling fragments of memory pictures oscillating in a polyphonic discursive room full of leaping shadows and sensory pandemonium are not insights granted by depths mysterious and other. Rather, they are made, not granted, in the ability of montage to provoke sudden and infinite connections between dissimilars in an endless or almost endless process of connection-making and connection-breaking. (1991: 441)

The sacred brew of ayahuasca, in the space between the shaman and the patient, acts as a potent force of montage, actively bringing together concepts, cosmological referents, and ontological structures in novel ways, such that, as an adept within the navigation and utilization of the properties of this space, the shaman can effect the healing and, in the rhetoric of Western seekers, the personal transformation of the patient.  Such a notion, while in a significantly different ethnographical context, is not dissimilar to the World-Making proposed by Joanna Overing in terms of the ruwang of the Piaroa, working with concepts drawn from Nelson Goodman’s philsophy (1990).  Overing suggests that the power of the shaman has to do with his or her capacity to build meaningful worlds from pieces of other, pre-existing worlds.  These new worlds, as they are developed in accordance with an attempt to alleviate the suffering or heal the illness of a particular patient, are structured in ways that allow pieces of myth, history, and even daily life to be drawn from their respective wholes, and repositioned together in ways that allow their novel arrangement to uniquely and explicitly address the situation of the patient in question.  What is crucial to understand, even in such a brief outline of Overing’s ideas, is that these worlds are real to both the patient and the shaman, that they are not derivative or secondary spaces.  All worlds, in Overing’s explication of Nelson Goodman’s philosophy, are ultimately constructed from pieces of other worlds, giving no primacy – and crucially, no pejorative cast – to any world so constructed.  This is to say that this new world developed on the principles of montage is no less valid or meaningful than a “prior” world from which its aspects were drawn, but is instead simply another resonant world that informs, even as it potentially contrasts with and contradicts, the worlds from which its aspects were composed.  Such a constructional notion of reality echoes what Santos-Granero has described as “Amerindian constructional cosmologies” (2009: 3), wherein all cosmological structures, even as they produce the lived and historical world, are compositional or constructional in nature, drawn from pre-existing features and elements.  According to Santos-Granero, creation in many Amerindian cosmologies is not ex nihilo, but always constructed from prior or previous elements (Ibid. 4), suggesting that both the primordial and manifest worlds are ultimately the product of a function of montage, just as the healings of a shaman may be said to be.  If the world itself can be understood as having been constructed through a function of montage, healings and other transformations seem within the realm of plausible as well.

Such a suggestion can be both elaborated and problematized.  As shamans have long been the mediators with the Other, and have in many ways drawn power from just such an Other, syncretism of ideas is not only to be expected, but is wholly consistent with the operation of shamanism (Luna 1986: 35).  This is to say that the incorporation of New Age terminology, the images of biomedicine and technology, and other such syncretic actions of indigenous and mestizo shamans is wholly in line with the mediatory capacity that in many ways defines the position of the shaman.  At the same time, real questions can be raised as to what extent cultural barriers can be crossed, even granting the assumption of a healing space participating in montage.  Piers Vitebsky has raised problems centered around the ‘holism of worldview’ that shamanism, especially indigenous shamanism, has traditionally entailed, and how central such a holism of worldview is to the efficacy of shamanic action (in Harvey 2003).  Even in Overing’s work we can see an echo of this, as the “new worlds” that are constructed from aspects of others must be constructed in such a way as to remain meaningful and viable in terms of their constituent parts, and the uses to which they are put for healing.  This is to say that while cultures may be acted in and through to produce new worlds, there are still cultural rules or understandings that will ultimately determine the viability and coherence of any newly produced world through these actions of montage.  Not all constructions are meaningful or acceptable in all cultural contexts.  As Vitebsky’s argument suggests, albeit in terms of Western-oriented neo-shamanisms, if the shamanic worldview is not understood as potent in all aspects and spheres of life – physical, psychological, spiritual, social, cultural, economic, etc. – then its power to act is significantly curtailed.  This does not, I would argue, imply that such a “healing space” of person, place, and sacred substance cannot be effective, but rather that it must be a space of negotiation and dialogue, one that does not attempt to transcend cultural barriers, but rather to integrate and absorb them – to build bridges out of the bricks of the walls.

There is so much more that can, and perhaps should, be said.  There are questions about the ethics of shamanic tourism, about what the impact on local cultures might be.  As indigenous and mestizo young people become interested in ayahuasca shamanism more to pander to tourists than to work in their communities, there are real questions about how such tourism may impact these traditions, and whether that impact will entail, in some ways, the destruction of their cultural meanings, as they are applied more and more to clientele whose rhetoric, problems, and ills do not fit with traditional structures (Proctor 2001).  Neither is the charlatanism and opportunism noted by Dobkin de Rios simply ameliorated by the plausibility of real and meaningful healing in some cases.  But beyond the potential dangers or troubles surrounding the dynamics of shamanic tourism, there are theoretical questions that invite further investigation.  If, as Fotiou asserts, the “question is no longer ‘if’ indigenous knowledge is going to be shared with outsiders but how and under what terms” (2010: 309), then as a religious or spiritual phenomenon, this shamanic tourism has intriguing correspondences to other religious phenomenon.  Pilgrimage, especially in terms of kind of structuralist division between sacred Center and a fascination with the distant Other (Cohen in Morinis 1992), bears directly on this kind of religious phenomenon, especially as modernized Western seekers trouble the notion of any original, cultural Center.  In a similar way, the dialogues surrounding healing and personal transformation that are so ubiquitous in the reports and testimonies of Westerners involved in shamanic tourism (Fotiou 2010, Winkelman 2005, Vine of the Soul 2009, Other Worlds 2002) echo similar refrains in the testimonies of those that have undergone religious conversion (see Steigenga and Cleary 2007 for an elaboration on the discourses of conversion as they are found in Latin America).  That the intentions and outcomes of participants in shamanic tourism may have an interplay with the same motivations, expectations, and experiences as those undergoing religious conversion suggests that there may be an affinity between the two experiences, though inasmuch as shamanic tourism does not require or present a model for converting to any given religion or set of beliefs, the differences may be as informative as the similarities.

Ultimately, it may well prove to be the relationality of the experience, the space between shaman and patient – the healing space created and held by the shaman, making effective use of ayahuasca to open dialogue and negotiated senses of the meaningful or “real” with the patient – that effects the power of the ceremony.  To bring together that which did not before fit, to assemble a world from the self-help concepts of a patient, from the other-than-human spirits of the shaman, from the colonialist preconceptions of a Westerner, from the dynamic nature of tradition, and from the visual and auditory noise of the river and forest and city and unmuffled moto-taxis and carts of fruit and satellite dishes and dugout canoes and cheap cell phones – it is just this that is that essence of montage.  Where this space holds, and where the power of montage can be brought to bear – that power that is, as Taussig suggests a kind of “Epic theater aimed not at overcoming but at alienating alienation” (1991: 329) – social and cultural barriers may not cease to matter, but may be transformed and transmuted into a new shared myth.


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[1] The terminology of Western and Westerner is problematic as a categorical identification.  Many who come to participate in these ceremonies are not, geographically or culturally, “Western”.  Similarly, the many sub- and micro-cultures that exist among those even nominally “Western” defy any singular category to adequately define or even describe the many different persons making these kinds of journeys.  The term is, however, regularly employed in the discourse surrounding ayahuasca tourism to suggest Western-educated persons coming from industrialized social backgrounds.  It will be made use of in that context, though relevant distinctions will be noted in the discussion.

[2] See Ivakhiv 2003 for a broader treatment of the themes of New Age tourist and pilgrim.

[3] While vegetalismo, or mestizo shamanism, may have had some of its traditions retained from many original indigenous traditions of acculturated populations as they became indistinguishable from mestizo in rebereño life, much of the vegetalismo shamanism that became established in Iquitos was drawn from the return of these rubber tappers, as they brought back what they had learned in their time away (Luna 1986: 31).

[4] See Cohen in Morinis 1992 for an anthropological analysis of what distinguishes a tourist from a pilgrim.

[5] This use of the term ‘neoshaman’ should be understood as distinct from its use in terms of Westerners participating as shamans, such as in Michael Harner’s Core Shamanism (Harner 1990).

[6] See http://www.erowid.org/ and http://www.ayahuasca.com/ as prototypical examples.

[7] This use of the term “syncretic” is not intended to introduce notions of authenticity or purity into the discourse at this point, but rather to acknowledge an active and agentive multivalency.  Vegetalismo broadly speaking does not have a set of orthodox beliefs that it must sustain as authentic in order to retain a coherent identity, but is rather oriented toward maintaining and enhancing an efficacy in healing and practice.  While questions surrounding tradition vs. innovation can certainly be raised, as this paper endeavors to show, syncretism in mestizo shamanism may deal more with a mediation with the Other than questions of traditional systems of belief.

[8] Cf. Luna and Amaringo 1999.

[9] In many religious contexts, the term ‘sacrament’ is made use of as well.  For a more detailed analysis of the use of the term sacrament vs. sacramental in sociological terms as it applies to ayahuasca, see Baker 2005.

[10] Many analyses of the phenomenology and psychology of ayahuasca begin with a detailed account of how the harmine and harmaline alkaloids potentiate the DMT that is thought to produce the majority of the visual features of an ayahuasca experience.  Such a discussion is beyond the scope of this paper, and would not significantly aid an understanding of the shamanic healing space.  Likewise, a detailed phenomenology of the stages of ayahuasca inebriation, common visual motifs and themes, and the somatic effects of the brew, while related to the subject at hand, do not fall within its scope.


One Wound: Shamanism and the Crisis of the West

The truth is that there is too much to say.  Too much for an essay, too much for a single monograph, or even perhaps a series of them.  What shamanism – in whatever form it may take, for whatever methods and techniques or ways of knowing that may be assigned to the word – has to offer to the modern West, what possibilities it opens, and what contradictions and conflicts it may introduce, is a subject upon which it would be unreasonable to expect a single endeavor to have any hope of approaching a fully definitive statement.  The hope of this short essay then cannot be to architect the weight-bearing structures of a comprehensive argument, but rather to bend down to the earth, and humbly plant a seed.  A seed not arrogantly offered to the mind of the reader for whom such seeds and ideas may have long since found their place – likely to the point of broader and more efficacious expansion or contestation – but to the mind of the author, that by having been offered, they might not so soon be forgotten.

The modern West seems to have reached a crisis of faith.  Economic structures tremble on the verge of collapse.  Political ideologies have become brittle, unable to adapt or evolve at pace with the changes in the societies they are meant to guide and represent.  Natural “resources” – consciously objecting to the anthropocentrism inherent in this characterization apropos of a Heideggerian ‘productionist metaphysics’ (see Zimmerman 1990) – have begun to manifest signs of being overtaxed, their further exploitation requiring ever more elaborate measures or invasive devastation to tap, with all the attendant disastrous consequences these entail.  The 2010 BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico is only the latest and most public example.  It is increasingly difficult to trust that our water, our air, and our soil are free of contamination.  Increasingly difficult to trust our banks not to fail, our officials to ethically and responsibly govern.  Anxieties and repressions betray us, working like an undertow against our own more noble endeavors.  The modern West seems to have, in many cases simply and perhaps quite rightly, lost faith.

But this wound is one wound.  The existential anguish too easily discernable in the modern West, and the all but unchecked ecological devastation being wreaked moment by moment and day by day on the natural world, are not, as they may at first glance appear to be, two separate cancers.  Our wound is one wound, but as evidenced by the Cartesian divide so entrenched in the ontologies of the West, we witness this wound made manifest in two seemingly distinct realms: that of mind, and that of body.  That is to say that there is an existential crisis, this ‘loss of faith’ or a Weberian ‘disenchantment’, visible in the life patterns of both groups and individuals, evident in their ways of living, thinking, and desiring.  But concomitant with this, and here it is necessary to assert that it is concomitant and not simply correlated or contemporary with, are the ecological disasters and apocalyptic scenarios so often painted in the rhetoric of environmental collapse, global warming, and ecosystem disruption or obliteration.  If our social and often individual alienation and nihilism are the wound in the mind of our Cartesian dualism, the ecological disasters are the wound as manifested in the body.  It is a single wound, expressed multiply, anthropocentric and Cartesian thought dividing humanity from nature as mind is divided from body.

Shamanism stands in a unique place among the many methodologies of healing and integration to approach such a wound, able to act simultaneously upon physical and psychological realities without an absolute division between the two.  Indeed, it is just in shamanism’s focus on the underlying ‘spiritual’ reality of illness and disease that this potential efficacy can be found, whether spirit itself is posited to have an ontological reality, or is seen to be simply the affective space of play between these two other Cartesian-established polarities.  Though spirit may ultimately, upon investigation and using shamanic techniques – by taking shamans, as Jeremy Narby suggests, seriously and “at their word” (108) – prove to be more than simply the becoming-space of difference between the mind and body, even if spirit is limited to this notion alone, it would not of necessity lack the salutary power to be effective in the healing of this existential/ecological cancer.

Such a pronouncement, of course, cannot be granted without evidence.  To consider shamanism potentially viable as a methodology of healing and integration, a number of considerations must be taken into account.  First, and perhaps foremost, is the techno-scientific lens through which the modern West views itself and the world, and the critique of this way of knowing that must occur in order to make both conceptual and ethical space in the discourse for the radically different way of knowing and acting that shamanism entails.  Such a radical difference in ways of knowing and conceiving bring to mind, and to the discourse, the necessary “change in consciousness” that has been posited by many participating in the movements that can be broadly located within the phenomenon that Bron Taylor has termed “Dark Green Religion”, especially those, for the purposes of this discussion, of deep ecology and neo-shamanism.  That the elaboration of this idea does not fall into the ever-present trap of utopianism, the limitations of importing shamanic concepts to the modern West must be considered, and the oft-ignored dark side of shamanic activity must also be recognized and given place.  Finally, however, despite and in some cases even because of the constraints and limitations inherent in shamanism, it may prove possible to consider shamanism as a viable ‘spiritual’ methodology to engage with the crises of the modern West, as it may present a uniquely egalitarian, anti-centrist, holistic, and local-as-global form of spirituality.

A Short Critique of Western Modernity

The Kogi, after nearly four hundred years of seclusion, emerged from the Sierra Nevada with their warning to Younger Brother, bringing a message “from the heart of the world.”  Their warning of rampant deforestation, unchecked mining, and pollution of the natural world was designed to alert us that these actions were not simply going to lead to ecological and spiritual collapse at some point in the future, but were already producing effects of that very collapse.  That warning came over twenty years ago, and despite some tentative political rhetoric, little has substantively changed in the intervening years.  At best, the rapidity of certain depredations has been slowed, but the attitudes embedded within socio-cultural realities of globalism, modernization, and capitalism have not abated.  We hurtle ever more quickly toward environmental and ecological collapse, and though there is perhaps a need to remain intellectually wary of any message with such an apocalyptic tone, these dire prognostications are backed increasingly and more urgently by scientific investigations, those both of micro-environments and local ecologies, as well as those more globally situated, especially in terms of global warming.  It is beyond the scope of this essay to provide sources for the elaboration and justification of these ideas, but Al Gore’s work such as Earth in the Balance or the film, and literature surrounding, his An Inconvenient Truth would act as excellent primers toward the same.

The fact of these warnings on impending ecological collapse, though, does not answer from whence the courses of action that have led to such a state originated, nor what modes of conceiving of the world produced the frameworks wherein such action could occur.  There is no simple answer to this question.  Philosophies, religions, cultural idiosyncrasies, the expressions of political power, technological advancement and industrialization, along with many other possible currents of motive force, have all done their parts to shape any meaningful answer to such a question.  However, for the purpose of opening space to the introduction of shamanism and shamanic ideas, it is possible to limit the necessary critique, for the time being, to a much smaller subset of these forces, taking on only the conflicts that must be directly engaged with to move forward.  The most central conflict that must be addressed in the dialogue between shamanic worldviews and that of the modern West is the techno-scientific anthropocentrism that lies at the heart of Western ways of engaging with the natural world.  It is arguably from the implications of this worldview that a great deal of the specific ecological and existential damage can be traced.  To engage with this idea, however, we must investigate it in its parts.

When techno-scientism is spoken of in this context, it is not the process or procedure of science as a way of knowing that is being brought under critique directly, though there is a distinct argument to be made in terms of an intellectual colonialism on this front as well when it comes into imperialistic contact with indigenous ways of knowing.  It is rather this worldview’s roots in what Michael Zimmerman has described as, in terms of Heidegger’s thought, a ‘productionist metaphysics’.  By way of a minor explication of what is a significantly more complex argument, this is the notion that beginning as early as Plato in the history of Western thought, concepts and ideas themselves had begun to be positioned as artifacts of production, insofar as both concepts and objects-in-the-world were given epistemological veracity and ontological status only insofar as they ‘functioned’ toward some human-oriented goal or end.  As Timothy Clark summarizes the argument, “the hidden anthropocentrism of Western thought, its unacknowledged projection of instrumentalist or technological modes of thinking upon the cosmos as a whole” (Clark 30) is that which underlies the exploitative cast of the structures of Western consciousness.  Techno-scientism, as a means of knowing-and-production, is blind to realities that cannot be made to directly serve human interest, for it is only in terms of human interest that they are appropriated as knowledge.  For modern techno-scientism, the essential nature of the factory is built into this very insistence upon proof-as-repetition for the production or manufacturing of any value of truth.

It is not, however, this techno-scientism alone that must come under critique, for ultimately it is the anthropocentrism that is bound up with such a worldview that lends the exploitative cast to such a way of knowing.  Drawing a uniqueness around, and within the circle of, the ‘human’ as it divides from ‘nature’, as Von Stuckrad says of Schelling’s thought, “reduces nature to a ‘mere mechanism’” and that it “practically forces nature under humankind’s interests that do not shrink from nature’s destruction – ‘because as long as nature serves man’s needs, it will be killed’” (786).  Such an effect on the ‘mere mechanism’ of nature seems evident in the ecological crisis facing the planet, and yet the deleterious effects of such anthropocentrism cannot be limited even to this.  Much of the Weberian ‘disenchantment’, psychological dysfunction, and existential unrest in the modern West can also likely be laid at its feet.  Positing as the ultimate end and final answer that from which the question itself springs is the very essence of nihilism.  Anthropocentrism is doomed to failure as a worldview because it is in the end tautological.  It insists upon the essential validity and necessity of the “human” just as it asks the question of what is essentially valid and necessary in that same “humanity”.  That which cannot point beyond itself, dies, and in the death of such a worldview, the values upon which life and society are built have no referent beyond their own positing, leading inevitably, like an edifice with no foundation, to collapse.

Dark Green Religion

“’More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis until we find a new religion, or rethink our old one’” (White, quoted in Taylor 11).  It is to the nihilism that the failure of an anthropocentric worldview leads that an insistence upon a radical “change in consciousness” and even a kind of “spiritual awakening” is often suggested as the only potentially efficacious antidote.  In Bron Taylor’s Dark Green Religion, such sentiments can be found in the rhetoric of those running the gamut from mystically-inclined poets to staunch atheist-materialist scientists – albeit with differing significance given the specific kinds of supernatural or naturalistic world views – but perhaps nowhere more clearly stated than in a discussion of Dave Foreman of Earth First!:

As Foreman put it in an early Earth First! Publication, ‘Until the paradigm of Western Civilization is replaced by another worldview’ – and here he alluded to the goddess religions of the ancients and to Native American worldviews – ‘until children see wisdom alone on a mountain rather than in books alone,’ the restoration of earth-harmonious communities will be impossible.

(Taylor 78)

Without making any claims toward predicting what form or fashion such a change in consciousness or spiritual awakening might take, it does not seem to be suggesting too wild a notion to affirm that remedies leveraged toward only the symptoms of the existential and ecological crises in the West will invariably fall short.  If the critique leveraged against a ‘productionist metaphysic’ does in fact show itself capable of standing up to a more rigorous investigation than space permits to undertake here, then it cannot be but by a radical alteration in the very way we ‘produce’ or engage with and create concepts, as well as their technological and mechanistic ‘products’, that such a change in consciousness could come about.

If no prediction on the form such a change in consciousness might ultimately take can be definitively put forward, it might no less enhance the discussion to attempt to locate within modern “Dark Green” movements forms that seem at least to precipitate such a change, if they may be themselves – in current configurations – uncertain to act as the sole agent of the same.  Deep Ecology and Neo-Shamanism – or what Kocku Von Stuckrad terms, following Annette Høst’s lead, “modern western shamanism” (774) – both provide notable examples of existing systems of belief and action that have already attempted to begin incorporating the kind of radical changes in consciousness that seem in line with those suggested to be necessary more globally.  As Bron Taylor reports in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (ERN) “many deep ecologists believe that only by ‘resacralizing’ our perceptions of the natural world can we put ecosystems above narrow human interests and learn to live harmoniously with the natural world, thereby averting ecological catastrophe” (456).  Such a ‘resacralizing’ would position the natural world as having value intrinsic to its own existence, above and beyond its utilitarian value to humanity, a restructuring of value propositions necessary to a more fundamental change in consciousness.  It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer either a defense or critique of deep ecology as such, but the movement bears notice in the current context given its concerns with ecological devastation and search for more radical methods by which a new way to live can be imagined and undertaken.

Just as deep ecology seeks to engage with ecological wrongs as perpetuated by human actors by means of a retraining or reimagining of consciousness and the actions so guided, so too do many forms of neo-shamanism attempt to salve the psychological and existential crises felt by many in the modern West.  Though there is an undeniable overlap between ecological concerns and neo-shamanic themes, the majority of neo-shamanic theory and practice is done within the context of a kind of ‘therapy’ or spiritual healing.  As Vitebsky states speaking of neo-shamanism, “Through the idiom of therapy, it is also relocated inside the self” (in Harvey 293).  Though it is to Vitebsky’s point that neo-shamanism fails to engage with the essential holism that is entailed by shamanic cosmogonies and cosmologies, such an ‘internalizing’ of shamanic realities provides what can be seen to be, for a modern rational-positivist mindset ubiquitous in the West, a kind of necessary bridge between what would otherwise present too radical a departure from Western worldviews.  This bridge may yet, as with deep ecology’s ‘resacralizing’, prove to be at least a preliminary model from which more radical departures from dominant Western worldviews may begin to take place.

The Problem of Holism

In a trenchant discussion of shamanism, especially an emergent or re-emergent neo-shamanism, Piers Vitebsky presents what is perhaps the single most critical argument against the possibility of translating shamanic worldviews to the lives and minds of those in the modern West.  Though he traces a number of features of what can be seen as boundary-markers of shamanistic worldviews, it is his discussion of holism that proves to be his most central and devastating set of  assertions against the Western appropriation of shamanism in its totality, and it is this holism that must be investigated and incorporated into any projection of shamanism as a potentially viable methodology and worldview as it relates to the crises of the modern West.  Concurrent with this notion of holism, is the need to take a longer and further look at what has been termed the “dark side” of shamanism, in the form of sorcery, magical violence, and the ritual production of death, for such a “dark side” is by no means absent in indigenous worldviews upon which neo-shamanism purports to be patterned.

“The one thing global culture cannot recapture is the holistic nature of indigenous knowledge.  Even where the epistemology is admired, there is a lack of appropriate context for belief and application” (Vitebsky 296).  The problem is, perhaps at its heart, a postmodern one.  Whatever the hopes and beliefs placed in neo-shamanism by Western practitioners, it is still ultimately “just another” way of viewing the world, a particular set of methods or means by which to gain insight or understanding, the revelations and knowledge acquired able to be multiply interpreted and applied.  Neo-shamanism can be cross-pollinated by psychological therapies and insights, interpenetrated by the spiritual realities of other religious traditions, bound up with the scientific understandings, and simply ignored when other ways of knowing provide more direct or immediate results or responses, especially those that fit more fully or clearly with ontological structures already cognitively established.  While this may be seen as a strength, in some senses, in that the useful or functional aspects of many traditions and ways of knowing might be made use of simultaneously, what it lacks is a cosmological unity, a single and coherent way of making the cosmic, local.  “The shamanic sense of place, at once cosmic and local, becomes difficult to sustain but is replaced largely by a sense that each person carries the totality of space within themselves” (Vitebsky 295).  This interiorization of shamanic realities ultimately denies them the radically transformative powers that are their birthright, leaving such power waiting, latent but non-actualized.  If the power of shamanism is, as Joanna Overing suggests, its potential for ‘world-making’ (see Overing 1990) – which is to say, its capacity to construct and create worlds from the components of other worlds, such that novel experience is brought within cosmologically and ontologically meaningful parameters – then for shamanism to be effective in its most potent ways, the worlds that it creates from must fall within its purview.  This is not to say that shamanism cannot draw from worlds and aspects of worlds that are not explicitly shamanic in nature, but rather that the worlds and worldviews of participants in shamanic experience must grant the authority of shamanic world-making to work in, over, and through the aspects of other worlds, such that it is not excluded from the totality of experience.  If the reality of shamanic experience and power is seen to be something only “interior” to the participant or practitioner, then it is excluded from the breadth of the cosmological reality that shapes experience, and ultimately fails to be holistic in a meaningful sense.

Much to the same end, the vast majority of neo-shamanism finds itself situated within the “therapeutic” model as presented earlier.  As Michael Harner himself says of his ‘core shamanism’, “The way I offer you is that of the healer, not the sorcerer, and the methods given are those for achieving well-being and health, and for helping others” (xxiv).  While this is not to suggest that practitioners of neo-shamanism should be investing their energy in causing or perpetuating harm, much of the discourse surrounding neo-shamanism has very little space for recognizing that among indigenous practitioners of shamanism, the exercise of power is very often thronged about with the dialogues of ambivalence, inasmuch as power, shamanic or otherwise, is never seen to be inherently beneficent, but is rather capable of both harm and healing, at the same time.  Indeed, in many indigenous cosmologies, the powers that heal stem from much the same source as those powers that kill (see Harner 1990 for a discussion of tsentsak among the Jívaro or Shuar, or Wright 1998 for a discussion of Kuwai and the origins of manhene among the Baniwa).  This darker aspect of shamanism can ill-afford to be ignored or misunderstood, if the power of shamanism, even as it is translated into neo-shamanism, is to be hoped for as a source of transformative healing in the West.  This, however, points more broadly to the problem of evil in general.  In indigenous cosmologies, evil is very rarely something to be overcome, once and for all, and done away with permanently.  Rather, evil – which is perhaps not the most precise term, but is meant to include without being limited to, disease, illness, hurt, sorcery, loss, and death – is an inarguable and unavoidable aspect of reality itself, given no less place or even necessity than the cosmological good.  By being a presence that is not meant to be conquered, vanquished, or done away with, evil presents itself in dialogue with good, in a place of negotiation then that can include the human actor in both the resistance to and expression of both good and evil.  This dialogue or negotiation is a crucial aspect of holism, for without cosmogonic or cosmological precedent for the persistence and ineradicability of evil, its presence presents a mortal obstacle to the viability of good.  Daily life will consistently reaffirm the existence of both “good” and “evil” realities, and a spiritual methodology that does not intimately grapple with both, that does not present a coherent cosmological case for the existence and presence of both, will fail to be holistic in the ways most critical for such a spirituality to express and make use of power.

In Defense of Shamanism

How then is it possible to present any kind of answer to Vitebsky’s challenge of holism?  Any such answer must engage with questions of ‘local’ spirituality, bioregional-oriented ecological and cultural action, cosmological holism, and a distinct wariness of the utopianism that can spring from an overly romanticized view of shamanism itself.  Inasmuch as the nature of this essay is, at best, probative, no comprehensive argument will be undertaken, though certain possibilities will be pointed to, as avenues of further exploration.  However, as cosmological holism is the most salient aspect of Vitebsky’s critique, and is that aspect that is least easily answered, the surrounding elements will be addressed first, by way of preparing the space.

To return again to a current within the broader umbrella of “Dark Green” movements, bioregionalism affords a number of correspondences with indigenous cultures that might be described as shamanic, or participating in shamanic worldviews.  “Bioregionalism is both a philosophy and social activism that favors a small-scale, decentralized, and place-based approach to life,” (McGinnis in ERN, 188), a philosophy which

has also been influenced by a diversity of voices in social and ecological movements that support the spiritual, sacramental, psychological, and biophysical connections between human beings, the human awareness of place and community, and the understanding of nature as part of a larger circle of animals, plants, and insects.

(McGinnis in ERN, 188)

A philosophy or set of beliefs oriented in such a way show a profound resonance with many indigenous ways of life, already migrating toward the “animism in practice” (779) that Drury, cited by Von Stuckrad, states shamanism to be.  Even further, “Bioregionalism is not a new idea but can be traced to the aboriginal, primal and native inhabitants of the landscape,” (McGinnis in ERN, 188), which is to say that it may be possible to see bioregionalism as simply a modern recapitulation of the same basic principles that shaped indigenous outlooks on a sense of place in the natural world.  If it is possible to consider bioregionalism along these lines, then the possibility that shamanism, as a spirituality already proven to be effective in such a socio-cultural milieu, might be able to integrate into this Western development becomes one significant enough to note.

Bioregionalism is often associated with concepts of “self-rule”, the local and place-based styles of living quite understandably extending to systems of governance and authority.  This dovetails nicely into one of Vitebsky’s statements on the core traits of shamanism, describing shamans as “often politically dissident or anti-centrist” (in Harvey, 279).  Shamans and shamanic knowledge, especially that as revealed in ecstasy or ‘trance’, is regularly considered to be ill-conducive to the establishment of centralized forms of hierarchical power.  This is not a wholly uncontested notion, however, as Nicholas Thomas argues explicitly, saying, “It would be wrong to assume that shamanism is in any sense essentially antihierarchical or essentially dissociated from hierarchy” (in Thomas and Humphrey, 16).  Thomas and others in the same volume (Shamanism, History, and the State) put forward a number of arguments to the effect that shamanic power can be co-opted by the state, or by other politically-minded actors, toward the establishment of hierarchy.  While there is neither time nor space to engage in such a debate in this essay, it is worth noting that in many of such examples, shamanic power was certainly made use of for the establishment of hierarchy, but significantly less often used in its maintenance, implying that shamanic power can be utilized to effect change, but is often too difficult to constrain to the formal outlines of more rigid hierarchies once that same change has been established.  Shamanisms that remain coupled tightly to hierarchical power have a distinct tendency to bend toward priesthoods, the ecstatic and revelatory nature of the practice giving way to liturgical and dogmatic structures.  As Stephen Hugh-Jones says of Horizontal Shamanism (HS, the ecstatic-tending type) when opposing it to Vertical Shamanism (VS, the priestly-tending type):

In many Amazonian societies, HS occurs on its own.  It appears to be associated with more egalitarian, forest-oriented societies…. Secular power is often separated from sacred power….  Shamanism is individualistic, open to all adult men, frequently involves widespread and relatively free use of hallucinogenic substances, and is only peripherally involved in the ritual reproduction of society.

(Hugh-Jones in Thomas and Humphrey, 33)

It can reasonably be suggested then, I believe, that “ecstatic” shamanisms – those involving direct experience of other worlds and beings, and entailing individual revelations – can be seen as following Vitebsky’s “anti-centrist” marker, even if the line between ecstatic vs. priestly shamanisms may not always be a perfectly clear division.  If this is so, then shamanism fits again into the social and political ideologies implied by bioregionalism, another area in which a Western cultural manifestation has interplay with shamanic worldviews.

Vitebsky’s critique of holism, especially as it concerns the cosmological aspects of a true, living holism, still lie unanswered, if perhaps approached by the interplay between bioregionalism and shamanism.  The reality is that the way forward is not clear.  As long as an animist-shamanic-ecological worldview is simply another option among many, a way of knowing that is measured by its applicability to a particular subset or domain of knowledge, but not seen to pervade the discourses of all modes of knowing, all modes of being and living – from the social and political to the simply pragmatic and commonplace, from the spiritual or religious to the philosophical and technological – then it will lack the truly transformative power that it might otherwise lay claim to.  It may well be that such social, cultural, ontological, and epistemological transformation must take its cue from a phrase common in Anarchist theory, to “create the new world in the shell of the old.”  Radical change on a global scale driven by the ideology of a single movement is not only unlikely, but brings with it the possibility of all the attendant nightmares of any other hegemony bordering on fascism.  But what Vitebsky sees as the fragmentation of the environmental movements (in Harvey 292), I would argue might be instead seen as a new kind of adaptive strength.  In the short term such confrontations with established power may certainly result in failures, but they will not always, and the loose association, the decisions to band together to act when and where such action seems necessary, dictated not by the dogmatic pressures of a monolithic Revolution, but rather by the passion of those individually dedicated to specific change is perhaps the single best avenue of hope for the progression of change in the modern world.  Our very disenchantment and alienation can be seen as a kind of inoculation against many of the more overt forms of “movement” rhetoric, meaning that – so long as lapses into apathy or nihilistic despair can be averted – those committed to change are likely to be committed with eyes open and consistently critical, in the most positive sense, of all new forms and expressions of power, even those in which they participate toward their own ends.  Such loose organization and cause-oriented gathering has a dynamic, organic quality to it that makes it fit easily within a bioregional philosophy, one which has the very real potential to provide back a new holism, one that is concerned locally, one that understands its life and its spirituality as bound up with the immediate place within which it finds itself situated, but has the capacity to bear in mind the boundaries of becoming between what is the local and what is the global.  A movement that is not a movement cannot be resisted by the normal repressive structures.  And it is shamanism, as both a series of techniques or an expression of spirituality, that has the potential to navigate the new boundaries, re-establishing holistic cosmologies, unique to the locality of place, but in ways that allow an open-ended dialogue with alternate cosmological holisms, non-reductively expressing unique spiritualities of those populating bioregionally local spaces, while simultaneously providing practicable models for spiritual and social life that, through the eristic and dissident nature of shamanism, allow social and cultural realities that have been shaped by these models to be held open and in negotiation.  In a new world where boundaries are not the divisions between Kantian things-in-themselves, but rather Deleuzian processes of becoming, the borders and edges of things better understood in a Derridian sense of différance than as clearly demarcating object-identity certainties, shamanism provides the transgressive and transformative potentials to navigate such boundaries, as it has done between heavens, hells, and human lives since time immemorial.  What remains is only the question of catalyst.

Works Cited

Narby, Jeremy. The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998. Print.

Harvey, Graham. Shamanism: A Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Harner, Michael J. The Way of the Shaman. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990. Print.

Clark, Timothy. Martin Heidegger. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

Zimmerman, Michael E. Heidegger’s Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art. The Indiana series in the philosophy of technology. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. Print.

Taylor, Bron R. Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. Print.

Taylor, Bron R, Jeffrey Kaplan, Laura Hobgood-Oster, Adrian J. Ivakhiv, and Michael York. The Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2005. Print.

Thomas, Nicholas, and Caroline Humphrey. Shamanism, History, and the State. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Von Stuckrad, Kocku. “ReEnchanting Nature: Modern Western Shamanism and Nineteenth-Century Thought.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 70.4 (2002): 771–799. Print.

Overing, Joanna. “The Shaman as a Maker of Worlds: Nelson Goodman in the Amazon.” Man 25.4 (1990): 602-19. Print.

Wright, Robin. Cosmos, Self, and History in Baniwa Religion: For Those Unborn. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998. Print.


The simple reality is that a year ago I spent two weeks in a fairly spacious camp carved out of the Peruvian jungle, drinking ayahuasca with a white and mestizo shamans every other day or so.  After coming down and coming back, I realized that the years spent simply reading about shamanic experience had done little to nothing to prepare me for what I actually experienced.  Not that any academic pursuit ultimately could have, but what it left me with was two things: a desire to go back, regularly, and a desire to understand – both in a directly experiential sense and an academic/critical sense.

So that’s what I’m doing, or what I’m setting out to do.  I’m taking classes, preparing to go back to grad school for Religion, and working – by reading, mostly, at this point – to gain a broader understanding of Shamanism, and the way in which the academic study of this has been and continues to be situated in theoretical, philosophical, and anthropological terms.  That’s what this blog is about.  I want to use this space to talk about shamanism, about philosophy, about what I’m learning, what I’m reading, and my responses to these.  I’ll almost certainly post long-winded rants about things that I only peripherally understand, making bold and utterly ill-founded claims that I will then be forced – either by commentary or my own subsequent realizations – to walk back, and apologize for.

But I’m excited about it.  I’m looking forward to the effort.  There are so many things I find fascinating.  Whether you’re sticking around for the ride, or just happen to be passing through, hopefully you’ll find some interesting things here as well.