Jeremy Narby on what hallucinogens like LSD and the Amazonian drink ayahuasca have to teach us

NarbyRoper

STRANGE BREW
Canadian-Swiss anthropologist JEREMY NARBY on what hallucinogens like LSD and the Amazonian drink ayahuasca have to teach us

Introduction by Erik Davis
Q & A by Jay Babcock
Illustration by Arik Roper

Originally published in Arthur No. 22/May 2006 (available from the Arthur Store)

INTRODUCTION
by Erik Davis

The anthropologist and author Jeremy Narby hit the intellectual freak scene in 1998 when he published The Cosmic Serpent, an audacious, intriguing, and entertaining dose of righteous mind candy that grew out of his decades-long explorations—both personal and scholarly—of the ayahuasca-swilling tribes of the upper Amazon. A Canadian living in Switzerland—at least when he’s not researching in the jungle or working on indigenous rights—Narby is no bug-eyed hippie prophet of “the tea.” He is a grounded, sensible fellow with a dry wit, an unromantic but respectful view of shamanism, and an allergy to vaporous supernatural claims. (In Europe he also sometimes performs with the guys behind the Young Gods, a seminal Swiss industrial band that led the Wax Trax pack back in the day.) While Narby’s head has definitely been broken open, his book does not spend a lot of time on the “spiritual” import of the jungle brew. Instead, Narby focuses on one of the biggest claims made by the Amazonian shamans: that their ritual ingestion of the hallucinogenic brew not only brought them contact with the spirits of animals and healing forces, but actually gave them knowledge—actual data—about the workings of the jungle around them.

After all, some sort of weird data transfer is going on in the jungle (though its hard to say it reaches the increasing numbers of spiritual tourists who are now hustling down to the Amazon and transforming shamanic culture with first world dollars). The existence of ayahuasca itself may be one of the greatest mysteries. Ayahuasca is not one plant, but a relatively complex brew that requires a fair amount of preparation. How did the old ones know that, out of the 80,000 some species of plants in the jungle, only this vine, combined with that shrub, and then boiled down into black gook, can produce the mother of all trips (not to mention some grade-A karmic Drain-O)?

Narby takes the mystery one step further: could the shamans be right? Could the brew, which one informant calls “the television of the jungle,” facilitate the knowledge of the jungle? To approach this question, Narby attempts to “defocalize” his gaze so that he can perceive science and indigenous understandings at more or less the same time. This trippy conceptual exercise leads him to the central mindfuck of the book: that the serpents that commonly slip into the visual field during ayahuasca trips are a figurative expression of the ultimate source of ayahuasca’s visionary communiqués: the coils of DNA. Ayahuasca is not just a head trip – it is a communication with the “global network of DNA-based life.” Narby is no true believer, and he is somewhat startled by his own hypothesis, but that makes it all the more compelling, and the lengthy notes in the back of the book prove he is doing more than riffing.

After co-editing a powerful collection of first-hand reports of Western encounters with shamans, Narby came out with the book Intelligence in Nature. Rejecting the idea that plants and “lower” animals are mute mechanisms, Narby uncovers scientific evidence that impressive feats of cognition are going on outside the precious smartypants club of the higher primates. Narby looks at bees capable of abstract thought, and unicellular slime molds who are able to solve mazes. Perhaps inevitably, the book is not as wild a ride as The Cosmic Serpent, and Narby spends too much time describing his mundane journeys to research labs and too little time wrestling with how “intelligence” relates to choice, or awareness, or intention. Nonetheless, the book is a worthwhile example of Narby’s “defocalized” gaze – an undeniably scientific appreciation whose inspiration lies with the fundamental shamanic belief that other creatures, and even some plants, are, in their own world, “people” like us.

INTERVIEW
conducted by Jay Babcock over the telephone in late January, 2006

Arthur: You attended the conference on LSD held in Basel this past January to coincide with the 100th birthday of the father of LSD, Dr. Albert Hoffman. What happened there?

Jeremy Narby: What didn’t happen? I think one needs metaphors to get at it, really. When LSD hit in the ‘60s, it was like a drop of mercury that went in all kinds of directions, broke into a lot of different shards. Because LSD affects consciousness and consciousness affects everything, LSD had an impact in art, in music, in thinking, in the personal computer industry, in biology, and so on. In Basel all the different little pieces came back together and arranged themselves in a kind of mosaic that was psychedelic, multi-faceted and beautiful. All the chickens came home to roost after 40 years, looking good. One of my favorite moments was when Christian Ratsch came on the big stage with Guru Guru, which is the original Krautrock band. He was walking around with amber incense and stuff, providing incantations and shamanistic energy during the set, and these sprightly gentlemen, who must be about 55, just rocked the house down. It was fantastic.

Arthur: So, where does it go from here?

Jeremy Narby: One of the aims of the symposium was a kind of explicit political aim at getting psychedelic research back on the scientific map, and I think the point’s well taken. But you know, I’ve been working as an activist to get recognition for the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples and essentially despite a couple of decades of work and a lot of clear data (it seems to me), there’s really a fundamental resistance coming out of rationalism, coming out of Western cultures, coming out of the political systems. So I have the feeling of having led the horse to water but it didn’t want to drink. Sure, we can talk to the horse nicely and try and get it to drink the water some more, but finally I feel like more drastic tactics are needed. Like kicking the horse in the butt, or telling it to go and take a hike, or turning your back on it.

So I applaud these efforts to legalize psychedelic research, but… There are those among us who have wanted to use hallucinogens how indigenous people use them—in a serious way to understand the world. And we’ve been doing it, underground, for the last bunch of decades, and getting results that are richer and more interesting than what the Western rationalists are producing. So, I’d say that I’d rather take hallucinogens and then write stunning books than make speeches about hallucinogens.

Arthur: What was the response of Western rationalists to your hypothesis in The Comsic Serpent—that Amazonian shamans were actually receiving information at the molecular level via the ayahusaca trance?

Jeremy Narby: Scientists said that I hadn’t tested my hypothesis. Well, okay : I was just happy to have it considered testable! [chuckles] So how do we test it? Well, you try to falsify your hypothesis. You come up with a test to try to demonstrate that it’s wrong. That’s the scientific method. So, I thought, let’s send three Western molecular biologists with questions in their labwork down to the Amazon and put them into ayahuasca-induced trances. If they didn’t come up with any information then my hypothesis would start to look falsified. Now, it is a heavy thing to ask people who have never taken mindbending hallucinogens before to submit themselves to the experience in the name of science. These people are making their psyches available to you and then you distort them with these powerful hallucinogenic plants. In terms of ethics, this is even worse than experimenting on animals. It’s experimenting on humans. They were consulting subjects and all, but sheesh, this is serious business. I mean, the first thing that ayahuasca does, before it answers whatever questions you might put to it, is it tells you about yourself. It puts its finger on your weak spots, fast. It encourages you to clean up your act. This makes it a hard path to knowledge for somebody who’s into ‘being objective’ in the lab. As a scientist, you’re not supposed to pay attention to your subjectivity—you’re supposed to jettison it. But when you end up in an ayahuasca experience, it’s your little subjective self that is the hot point. Your subjective self comes to the forefront in your acquisition of knowledge. For a scientist, that’s a rough one.

Arthur: You were able to find volunteers, nonetheless. I gather they were colleagues… ?

Continue reading

The best book yet on ayahuasca: ERIK DAVIS on "Singing to the Plants" by Stephan Beyer

stephanbeyer

Above: Stephan Beyer, conscientious gringo

Singing to the Plants: Stephan Beyer drinks up
by Erik Davis

techgnosis.com – January 11, 2010

Book website: http://www.singingtotheplants.com

The spiritual superhero of the baby boomers was the guru. But where the guru once hovered with his beatific smile, the shaman now shakes his stuff: an earthier, more pragmatic icon of mystical powers more suited to our era’s green anxieties. Now a significant figure for scholarly discourses as well as popular ones, the shaman, and especially the ayahuasca-swilling Amazonian variety, has not only stepped forward as a vehicle of archaic spirituality but has become—as the gazillions of bedazzled Avatar initiates can attest—a seductive site of fantasy and projection. For many of the aya tourists now hustling down to Peru in droves, or the untold thousands dropping 300 bucks or so to drink in their own Euro-American backyard, the man with the rattle (and his less common female compatriots) has become a visionary Rorschach blot: a New Age therapist, an avatar of environmentalism, a psychedelic captain fantastic.

This is why we need Stephan Beyer’s new book, the magisterial Singing to the Plants: A Guide to Mestizo Shamanism in the Upper Amazon. In this tome, Beyer has found the sweet spot between scholarly and popular writing, the otherworldly and the disenchanted, participation and observation; the result is the best or at least most comprehensive book I have seen on ayahuasca.

Continue reading

"The plant-mind can be *experienced*": ERIK DAVIS on the Avatar-ayahuasca connection

deandragon

Aya Avatar: Drink the Jungle Juice
by Erik Davis

Originally posted: techgnosis.com

January 7, 2010

In paradoxical and altogether predictable terms, James Cameron’s ravishing Avatar sets a blue man group of mystically attuned forest dwellers against the aggressive and heartless exploitation that characterizes the military-industrial-media complex, with its virtual interfaces, biotech chimeras, and cyborg war machines. The paradox, of course, is that a version of this latter complex is responsible for delivering Cameron’s visions to us in the first place. To wit: before a recent screening of the film at the Metreon IMAX theater in San Francisco, we hapless begoggled ones were barraged with military ads, not to mention a triumphant techno-fetishist breakdown on the Imax technology that would soon transport us to the planet Pandora almost as thoroughly (and resonantly) as the handicapped jarhead Jake jacks into his computer-generated avatar body.

But those are behind the scenes ironies. With its floating Roger Deanscapes and hallucinogenic flora, the manifest world of Avatar instead spoke another truth: that the jungle pantheism that now pervades the psychoactive counterculture has gone thoroughly mainstream. Of course, noble savage narratives of ecological balance and shamanic wisdom have been haunting the Rousseau-mapped outback of the western mind for centuries. That said, Avatar represents some important twists in that basic tale. The most important of these is that the Na’vi’s nearly telepathic understanding of their environment is grounded not only in ritual, plant-lore, and that earnest seriousness that now afflicts PC Hollywood Indians, but in an organic communications network: the fibrous, animated, and vaguely repulsive pony-tail tentacles that not only allow the Na’vi to form direct control links with animals but also, through the optical filaments of the “Tree of Souls,” to commune with both ancestors and the Ewya, the biological spirit of the planet whose name resonates with Erda, our own Earth.

Call it ayahuasca lite. For while Avatar features nothing like the South American shaman lore and stupendous aya visuals that litter the otherwise very bad 2004 Western released here as Renegade, the film does suggest that the bitter jungle brew, and ideas of ecological wisdom now attached to it, is having a trickle-down effect. The banisteriopsis caapi vine that gives ayahuasca its name (though not its most hallucinogenic alkaloids) is also known as the “Vine of Souls,” which echoes the Na’vi’s Tree of Souls. And when Sigourney Weaver attempts to establish the efficacy of the Trees through a neurological discourse of electrical connection, the corporate tool Parker asks what she’s been smoking—a backhanded way of acknowledging how much Avatar’s visionary take on ecological consciousness is grounded in psychoactive consciousness.

After all, beyond a thriving and in many ways damaging ayahuasca tourist market in Brazil and Peru, clandestine aya circles manned by South American shamans and all manner of Euro-American facilitators are are now well established throughout the west. Among the professional creative classes who make up a sizable portion of West Coast seekers—for spirit and/or thrills—ayahuasca could almost be said to be mainstream. So it no longer matters whether Cameron or his animators have themselves drunk the tea; its active compounds are already swimming in the cultural water supply. Eco-futuristic dreams are now indistinguishable from the visionary potential of media technology itself. Indeed, whether you are talking form (ground-breaking 3D animation) or content (cyber-hippie wetdream decor), Cameron’s visual and technological rhetoric is impossible to disentangle from hallucinogenic experience.

OK, maybe I am the one smoking something. But if there is an aya-Avatar connection, it would explain one crucial way in which the film differs from conventional “noble savage” mysticism. Rather than ground the Na’vi’s grooviness in their folklore or spiritual purity, the film instead presents the vision of a direct and material communications link with the plant mind. Which means that Eyra does not have to be believed—she can be experienced. After the temporary fusion with the Tree of Souls that fails to prevent her death, Weaver’s chain-smoking left-brain doctor happily confirms Ewya’s existence. Like the Vine of Souls now wending its way through the developed world, the Tree of Souls becomes a kind of bio-mystical media, a visionary communications matrix that uplinks the souls of the dead and the network mind of the ecosphere itself.

Subscribe to Erik Davis’ Techgnosis by Email

Excellent article on AYAHUASCA in National Geographic

perushamans

Click here: “Peru: Hell and Back”
Deep in the Amazon jungle, writer Kira Salak tests ayahuasca, a shamanistic medicinal ritual, and finds a terrifying—but enlightening—world within.

Major praise to National Geographic for putting together the best single article on ayahuasca-as-medicine that I’ve ever seen, anywhere. Lengthy article features a first-person account of two ayahuasca treatments by courageous reporter Kira Salak, as well as commentary/information/insights from leading, sensible Western ayahuasca researchers (Charles Grob at UCLA; Benny Shanon at Hebrew University, Jerusalem; and psychologist/author Ralph Metzner) and footage of the beginning of an ayahuasca session.

Excerpt:

At the vanguard of this research is Charles Grob, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at UCLA’s School of Medicine. In 1993 Dr. Grob launched the Hoasca Project, the first in-depth study of the physical and psychological effects of ayahuasca on humans. His team went to Brazil, where the plant mixture can be taken legally, to study members of a native church, the União do Vegetal (UDV), who use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and compared them to a control group that had never ingested the substance. The studies found that all the ayahuasca-using UDV members had experienced remission without recurrence of their addictions, depression, or anxiety disorders. In addition, blood samples revealed a startling discovery: Ayahuasca seems to give users a greater sensitivity to serotonin—one of the mood-regulating chemicals produced by the body—by increasing the number of serotonin receptors on nerve cells.

Unlike most common antidepressants, which Grob says can create such high levels of serotonin that cells may actually compensate by losing many of their serotonin receptors, the Hoasca Project showed that ayahuasca strongly enhances the body’s ability to absorb the serotonin that’s naturally there.

“Ayahuasca is perhaps a far more sophisticated and effective way to treat depression than SSRIs [antidepressant drugs],” Grob concludes, adding that the use of SSRIs is “a rather crude way” of doing it. And ayahuasca, he insists, has great potential as a long-term solution.

According to Grob, ayahuasca provokes a profound state of altered consciousness that can lead to temporary “ego disintegration,” as he calls it, allowing people to move beyond their defense mechanisms into the depths of their unconscious minds—a unique opportunity, he says, that cannot be duplicated by any nondrug therapy methods.

“Ayahuasca is not for everyone,” Grob warns. “It’s probably not for most people in our world today. You have to be willing to have a very powerful, long, internal experience, which can get very scary. You have to be willing to withstand that.”

Read the whole article here…