Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999.
Ayahuasca is a fascinating reader presenting personal experiences with the sacred Ayahuasca brew, and it’s a most valuable resource for both researchers and those interested in a spiritual voyage.
In addition to this invaluable source material, the introduction and comments by the editor of the book, Ralph Metzner, a widely acclaimed authority on shamanism and entheogens, are precious and well-written.
The book throughout is very readable; there is no ethnobotanic gibberish, and the editor has mastered the task to unite different energies into a powerful laser.
I had an immense interest and pleasure reading this book, and it captivated me page after page. It is an absolute must-have in a personal growth library, in a spiritual library, in a library about tribal peoples, in an ethnobotanic library, and in a specialized library about shamanism.
Ralph Metzner writes in the introduction:
Ayahuasca is widely recognized by anthropologists as being probably the most powerful and most widespread shamanic hallucinogen. In the tribal societies where these plants and plant preparations are used, they are regarded as embodiments of conscious intelligent beings that only become visible in special states of consciousness, and who can function as spiritual teachers and sources of healing power and knowledge (…) The plants are referred to as medicines, a term that means more than a drug: something like a healing power or energy that can be associated with a plant, a person, an animal, even a place. They are also referred to as plant teachers and there are still extant traditions of many-years-long initiations and trainings in the use of these medicines./3
Some people, and among them many skeptics, ask why one who is not part of such a culture and who is not an ethnobotanist should have an interest in engaging in a plant-induced spiritual quest? Ralph Metzner gives a clear answer:
A powerful resurgence of respectful and reverential attitudes toward the living Earth and all its creatures seems to be a natural consequence of explorations with visionary plant teachers./4
Terence McKenna emphasized in all his books another important aspect of psychedelics: their boundary-dissolving nature. Patriarchy is unique in human history in its obsessional and neurotic striving for setting boundaries, putting up limits, erecting fences, dividing naturally grown landscapes, dissecting bodies for ‘vivisection,’ splitting the atom, dividing life and nature into ‘white-god’ and ‘black-devil,’ and so on and so forth. We won’t get rid of our patriarchal tradition by a magic stroke of destiny nor by rebellion. The way to go is to overcome the boundaries and gain access to the whole.
With erecting a divider between man and nature, our culture has developed a schizoid and delusional fantasy of man being ‘superior’ in creation, having ‘dominion’ over nature, obviously forgetting that we own our very existence to this nature that we tend to condemn as low and unspiritual. In the run of patriarchy, and thus since the last five thousand years, the really destructive and life-denying ideology was not coming from Sumer, Babylon or Rome, but from the suffocating ethics of puritanical fundamentalism. This cultural perversion lasted a few hundred years, and perhaps we are now at a turning point? Metzner notes:
Over the past two millennia Western civilization has increasingly developed patterns of domination based on the assumption of human superiority. The dominator pattern has involved the gradual desacralization, objectification and exploitation of all nonhuman nature./5
And by doing so, to paraphrase Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul (1994)—which I am going to review next, we have created a cultural narcissism without equal in human history. For the scientist and explorer of consciousness, there are other values connected with the quest of getting back in touch with the spirits of nature. Metzner notes:
As a result of the conflict between the Christian church and the new experimental science of Newton, Galileo, Descartes, and others, a dualistic worldview was created. On the one hand was science, which confined itself to material objects and measurable forces. Anything having to do with purpose, value, morality, subjectivity, psyche, or spirit, was the domain of religion, and science stayed out of it. Inner experiences, subtle perceptions and spiritual values were not considered amenable to scientific study and came therefore to be regarded as inferior forms of reality—merely subjective as we say. This encouraged a purely mechanistic and myopically detached attitude towards the natural world. Perception of and communication with the spiritual essences and intelligences inherent in nature have regularly been regarded with suspicion, or ridiculed as misguided enthusiasm or mysticism./6
Now, as to the question of how plant-derived psychedelics work and what they do to human consciousness, Ralph Metzner summarizes some of the current theories or metaphors:
Two analogies or metaphors for the drug experience have been repeatedly used by writers both in the psycholytic and psychedelic paradigms. One is the amplifier analogy, according to which the drug functions as a nonspecific amplifier of psychic contents. The amplification may occur in part as a result of a lowering of sensory thresholds, an opening of the doors of perception, and may in part be due to as yet not understood central processes involving one or more neurotransmitters. The other analogy is the microscope metaphor: it has repeatedly been said that psychedelics could play the same role in psychology as the microscope does in biology— opening up realms and processes of the human mind to direct, repeatable, verifiable observation that have hitherto been largely hidden or inaccessible. Both amplifier and microscope are technological metaphors for expanded perception and divination—the ability to see and hear more vividly, to see into other, normally invisible worlds or dimensions, and to obtain otherwise hidden knowledge./24-25
One aspect that ethnology may have overlooked in shamanic cultures is their real—and not just fantasmatic—knowledge about healing with plants, a knowledge so vast, and so deep that, without having any technological instruments of inquiry at their disposition, seemed a sheer impossibility to many researchers.
As a result, many of them brushed this knowledge off as nonsense, exaggeration or myth. Now, modern research has shown that all is real, but at the same time researchers became even more strongly aware of the impossibility of it. The only hypothesis that could explain it was the one actually forwarded by the natives themselves: that they receive their knowledge directly from the plant teachers, without using any further instruments or tools, while being in psychedelic trance. Metzner notes:
Some of the indigenous healers and herbalists are veritable walking encyclopedias of medicinal botanical knowledge. They may have direct personal knowledge of hundreds, even thousands of plants, and what illnesses or conditions they can be used to cure; this knowledge was not acquired by literate means, but by direct experience./29
For all their demonstrated knowledge of herbs and medicine, the ayahuasqueros are unanimous in their assertion that the knowledge is given to them by the spirits of the plants, the forest, or the animals. Likewise, the healing is done, not so much by the plant drug, but by the spirit or essence invoked by the healer, via the use of the plant teacher, and expressed in the songs. With this belief, which is completely at variance with the accepted medical model focused on isolating and purifying the molecular compound, they would agree with Samuel Hahnemann, the great eighteenth-century German physician who founded homeopathy. In this medical system, the plant drug extracts are repeatedly diluted to such a degree that often not a single molecule of the original substance is left. In addition they are shaken or vibrated, a process referred to as succussion. Hahnemann said that through the repeated dilutions and succussions the spirit or essence of the plant was entirely released, or liberated, from the plant substance, and was thus able to act on the spiritual or essence of the patient. In this recognition of the spiritual essences inherent in plant medicines and their healing virtue, the homeopaths and the shamanic healers are in accord. It is also, I would add, the underlying assumption and understanding that I and my colleagues and collaborators have come to and that is represented, explicitly or implicitly, in the accounts in this book./32
I will come to an end with my review and refer the reader to a few quotes from the contributions to the reader that I publish below. I hope that this review and the further quotes will convince you of the usefulness of this well-edited book and make it a part of your library.
Grob, Charles S.
McKenna, Dennis J.
Initiation into an Ancient Lineage of Visionary Healers, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 46-57
I become aware of a morphic resonance between serpent and intestines: the form of the snake is more or less a long intestinal tract, with a head and a tail end; and conversely, our gut is serpentine, with its twists and turns and its peristaltic movement. So the serpent, winding its way through my intestinal tract was ‘teaching’ my intestines how to be more powerful and effective—certainly a gut-level experience!/48
The visionary warrior is not just passively taking in the visions, as we do when watching a film or television, or during most dreaming. The warrior is actively looking at them, observing the details, searching for the meaning behind the appearances. (…) Painful or traumatic experiences are often incomplete, sometimes because they are powerful prohibitions on the third phase of communicating. Healing or recovery from trauma involves telling the story, so that it is shared, believed and recognized. /52
I had known that songs could heal before, but what was new to my understanding here was that they could also function in a protective manner against toxic emotional negativity./54
Having So Recently Experienced My Death, It felt Miraculous To Be Alive, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 64-70
As a physician, I commonly use and prescribe medication. Until this experience of ayahuasca, I had never experienced what a true medicine might be. It is a terrible shame that we are unable to share the secrets and powers of this medicine with the suffering people who come to us for help. I would like to believe, however, that a strategy could be implemented for the future which could facilitate such intervention. If our society is unable to incorporate such a change, however, it will be sad world indeed./68
Conveying that the collective Gaia-nature of this planet cannot much longer sustain its health and vitality in the face of escalating environmental destruction perpetrated by a world culture dominated by greed and aggression, the essence of this ayahuasca inspired communication was to wake up before it is too late and mobilize what forces are necessary to prevent the annihilation of nature and the obliteration of the life forces it nurtures./69
Knowledge and information, contained in the core of the experience, has swept through me. I have been catapulted to a domain of being other than my self, more akin to the True Self. I have stood humbled in the face of its immense otherworldly power, and have dissolved in the embrace of life-affirming ecstasy. These encounters have provided a learning experience of extraordinary depth and profundity. /70
The Great Serpentine Dance of Life, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 129-131
The plumed serpent is masculine, involves outer impression and show of power; the unplumbed serpent is feminine, involving inner expression and statement of strength. (…) I experienced my entire body being reprogrammed and rearranged, even reconstituted at the deep cellular level. This resulted in an incredible feeling of openness, solidity, wholeness and openness./130
The Plant Spirits Help Me to Heal Myself and Others, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 124-128
I left conventional pharmacy, and the plant kingdom provided me with a new profession as an herbalist-educator of botanical medicines. (…) Besides being rich with verdant fecundity and colorful wildlife, the rain forest holds secrets that could change the course of medicine as we know it./127
Ayahuasca has allowed my everyday life to come more alive —my skin became electric, and light was everywhere; lucid dreams, messengers, birds, talking animals, and plant spirits continue to teach me./128
J.C. Callaway, Ph.D.
Phytochemistry and Neuropharmacology of Ayahuasca, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 250-275
DMT fits rather well into certain subsets of serotonin receptor sites within the brain (Callaway and McKenna 1998), where it is believed to modify the flow of neuronal information. (…) Although a function for its presence in the brain has not been demonstrated, the production of visions in dream sleep has been suggested as a role for endogenous DMT (Callaway 1998)./262
A Vision of Sekhmet, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 76-85
Throughout this part of the session, I felt the balancing of male and female energies, the dance of consciousness and substance./81
As I read about Sekhmet and assimilated my experience with her, the understanding that formed in my consciousness was that Sekhmet is a Great Mother Goddess, one that spans all time. With the sun disk at her head and the snake around it, she symbolizes the serpent power of the root chakra having risen to the crown. Thus, she encompasses both heaven and Earth, and demonstrates the way to unite the heaven and Earth of our own nature, Spirit and Form, through the awakening of the kundalini power in the muladhara chakra and its arising to the sahasrara chakra./83
Charles S. Grob, M.D.
The Psychology of Ayahuasca, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 214-249
The field of ayahuasca studies poses a challenge to mainstream psychiatry and psychology. Long neglected by Euro-American science, this Amazonian plant hallucinogen concoction known in native Quechua as the ‘vine of the dead’ or ‘vine of the soul’, has recently begun to attract increasing degrees of interest. (…) The fields of psychiatry and psychology have never had an appreciable comfort level with the mind states of aboriginal peoples. Native peoples have often been disparaged and the technologies designed to induce ritual trance states either pathologized or ignored. Years past, during a time of psychoanalytic preeminence, the medicine men, or healers, of these aboriginal peoples were judged to be mentally ill (Devereux 1958), their behaviors variably attributed to diagnoses ranging from schizophrenia to hysteria and epilepsy. The primitive medicine man, or shaman, was often identified as a deranged aboriginal tyrant and the wellspring of that psychopathology inflicting the entire tribal group, preventing their elevation into civilized society. Until quite recently the prevailing perception of the aboriginal has been one of the ignorant, deluded and dangerous savage, whose only salvation lay in abandoning the traditions of his ancestors for the customs and beliefs of modern culture. The proposition of taking seriously the plant technologies underlying the collective belief system found in native shamanism was given little credence by mainstream science and medicine./214-215
Ethnobotanical explorations in diverse geographic regions have yielded a surprising plethora of psychoactive plants, some with no prior history of cultural identification. Knowledge of potent psychochemical recipes have begun to disseminate, often with the aid of the Internet. Use of plant hallucinogens, in both underground and formal settings, is growing. It is time for post-modern medical science to reawaken and be attentive to this rapidly emerging phenomenon. Beyond the need to assess safety parameters, the full implications to paradigms of healing and reality need to be grappled with./215
The occupying Spaniards and Portuguese, possessors of now of most of the New World’s rain forests, brutally persecuted and exploited native cultures (Taussig 1987). Observing the utilization of sacred plants to induce an ecstatic intoxication, and identifying the central role they played in aboriginal religion and ritual, these new European overlords harshly condemned their use. Hernando Ruiz de Alarcon, an early Spanish chronicler of native customs, described how the plants ‘when drunk deprive of the senses, because it is very powerful, and by this means they communicate with the devil, because he talks to them when they are deprived of judgement with the said drink, and deceive them with different hallucinations, and they attribute it to a god they say is inside the seed’ (Guerra 1971). Condemned by the Holy Inquisition in 1616, the ceremonial use of the plant hallucinogens by aboriginal peoples of the New World survived only by going deeply underground, remaining hidden from the hostile and rapacious European-imposed dominant culture./219
Teaching the Body Its Relationship to the Spirit, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 148-152
My lower centers, my thighs, pelvis, and abdomen became the focus for the waves of fluid-like power that pulsed through my spaces. This fluid power was metabolizing and restructuring the consciousness of my body in relationship to the power and awareness available to it. As the intensification occurred, the purge was stimulated, without the deep significance of the first time with ayahuasca./150
The guide gave clues that helped me greatly in re-establishing a center of focus when the flooding effects of the medicine would space out in directions that I didn’t want to go. One set of instructions related to the four things useful to remember on a journey, inner or outer: one is your intention of purpose, two is your ancestors, three is your light or awareness, and four is the Earth./Id.
The Long, Multi-Faceted Journey of Jewish Experience, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 142-147
I saw and felt these masses of Jews clinging to something in their hearts. Clinging to grief, like an addiction. Holding onto it as though it was something precious, something that made them special or closer to God./146
This feeling of being attacked reinforces the defensive walls that surround the heart. In truth, there is an inner battle that Jews need to wage in order to become free of their present conflict. Perhaps, like with me, there is a need to fight to liberate the inner feminine./147
Liquid Plum’r for the Soul, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 116-123
After the ayahuasca sessions, I feel cleansed within, throughout and all about. I have a sense of having been healed at all levels, especially the physical. The ayahuasca medicine seems to have a special affinity for the gastrointestinal system: it snakes its way through the body, seeking out and eliminating obstructions to life energy flow. I sometimes think of it as a form of kundalini, a Liquid Plum’r for the soul. For cleansing and healing, for reconnecting with the vegetable kingdom, ayahuasca is definitely my medicine of choice./123
Dennis J. McKenna, Ph.D.
Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 187-207
Ayahuasca is a symbiotic ally of the human species; its association with our species can be traced at least as far back as New World prehistory. The lessons we have acquired from it, in the course of millennia of coevolution, may have profound implications for what it is to be human, and to be an intelligent, questioning species within the biospheric community of species. Although we have no certain answers, the question of the nature and meaning of the relationship between humanity and this visionary vine, and by extension with the entire universe of plant teachers, persistently troubles us. Why should plants contain alkaloids that are close analogs of our own neurotransmitters, and that enable them to ‘talk’ to us? What ‘message’ are they trying to convey, if any? Was it purely happenstance, purely accident, that led some early, experiment-minded shaman to combine the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaf, to make the tea that raised the curtain on the ‘invisible landscape’ for the first time?/207
by Ralph Metzner, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 1-45
They have been called psychotomimetic (‘madness mimicking’), psycholytic (‘psyche loosening’), psychedelic (‘mind manifesting’), hallucinogenic (‘vision inducing’) and entheogenic (‘connecting with the sacred within’). The different terms reflect the widely differing attitudes and intentions, the varying set and setting with which these substances have been approached./2
Ayahuasca is widely recognized by anthropologists as being probably the most powerful and most widespread shamanic hallucinogen. In the tribal societies where these plants and plant preparations are used, they are regarded as embodiments of conscious intelligent beings that only become visible in special states of consciousness, and who can function as spiritual teachers and sources of healing power and knowledge./3
The plants are referred to as ‘medicines,’ a term that means more than a drug: something like a healing power or energy that can be associated with a plant, a person, an animal, even a place. They are also referred to as ‘plant teachers’ and there are still extant traditions of many-years-long initiations and trainings in the use of these medicines./Id.
Breaking from the Bondage of the Mind, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 71-75
I had the thought that the reason certain cultural or ethnic art forms appear is because of the planetary energy in the location of the origin of that form, and that the music and the art were intricately connected and reflective of the energy of the planetary location of their origin and the energies which exist there./72
A most palpably Buddhist-like experience, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 132-134
My experience with the ayahuasca (as was true of my experience with LSD) put me in touch with an understanding of these ideas experientially. It was as if my body accepted ideas of oneness, duality, paradox, etc. on a cellular level. /133
I understood the sad and frightening visions to be every bit as wonderful as the most beautiful visions. The marvel was that I felt totally alive, open, responsive, and fearless! Accepting the fleeting nature of all, it was so simple to be fully present for every moment. Perhaps for the first time ever, I felt an implicit trust in my capacity to guide myself through the incredible labyrinth of dark and light./Id.
I felt the medicine to be much like a snake, traveling from my brain downwards, finally lodging in my groin. As I came to the end of my experience, I felt rooted in some tangled, steamy jungle, rich with the scent of death and rebirth, slowly becoming one with the vines and the very earth itself./Id.
Knowledge Was Graciously Invoked in Me by the Plant Teacher, in: Ayahuasca, Human Consciousness and the Spirits of Nature, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, pp. 92-97
I saw the machinations of the ego-personality and its subtle deceit of the Self, of the true Monad./95
The ayahuasca plant teacher, much like the entheogens probably employed in the Eleusinian and other ancient mystery religions, assists in the sought-after remembrance, what Plato referred to as anamnesis. /97