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Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety
by Rachel Harris
New World Library 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by David Bey, 2/27/2018

In 1953 William S. Burroughs traveled to the Amazon armed only with a typewriter and a fistful of pentobarbital in search of the legendary vine of the soul, the visionary medicine almost totally unknown in the West at that time outside of Richard Evans Shultes and a scattering of drug-addicted amateur ethnobotanists. Fast forward sixty years and ayahuasca, for better or for worse, is the new black. Celebrities endorse it. International church groups are organized around it. The internet abounds with slick web pages advertising luxury jungle retreat centers. Shipibo textiles adorn sartorial bling on the festival circuit as the cultural appropriation beat goes on. Books, blogs, testimonials and TED talks clutter up the noospshere––and far too much of the buzz can be relegated to the stuff-and-nonsense department.

Into this growing clamor author and psychotherapist Rachel Harris’ recent book Listening to Ayahuasca: New Hope for Depression, Addiction, PTSD, and Anxiety offers something immeasurably valuable in the field of psychedelic discourse: a sane, responsible, well-informed voice in a chorus replete with fevered egos and third-hand hearsay.

Self-described as a “journey into the ayahuasca underground of North America” it’s worth noting Listening to Ayahuasca’s northern emphasis. The book is pointedly not an exploration of South American shamanism in situ. It is, conversely, a nuanced examination of ayahuasca’s northern diaspora––what happens when, as some folks would have it, the medicine of the condor comes to the land of the eagle.

A working therapist with a doctorate and over three decades in private practice, Harris became involved in ayahuasca ceremonies and in 2008 experienced a clear directive from the voice of Grandmother Ayahuasca commissioning her to initiate a research study. Harris carried out this project over a period of several years and her findings, along with an account of her own personal journey, make up the core of Listening to Ayahuasca.

Harris’ study centered on a questionnaire she designed and distributed with the cooperation of shamans and ceremony leaders working in North America (responses were anonymously returned to Harris). The study’s design was grounded in a methodological lineage drawn from Walter Pahnke’s famous Good Friday Experiment and whose mainstream torch has been carried forward by Johns Hopkins researcher Roland Griffiths. Like those studies, Harris’ survey focuses on the persistent effects of mystical experience, asking how ayahuasca use changed people, for spiritually and psychiatrically significant values of change. However, while Pahnke and Griffiths’ studies required participants to have never taken a psychedelic before, Harris performed a topological inversion on the selection criteria and required participants in her study to have taken ayahuasca at least once, specifically in a ceremony in North America. As Harris explains, “I was primarily interested in a psychospiritual framework for understanding why people drink ayahuasca, what they learned from their experience, and how it changed them and their lives.”

One central decision Harris made in creating her study was to focus on the transformational results of the participants’ experiences, rather than on visionary content. Indeed, Listening to Ayahuasca is refreshingly devoid of cosmic serpents, star-panthers, ancient astronauts, or any of the fractal hue and cry attending the majority of breathless accounts of modern ayahuasca use, which, Harris points out, is often comorbid with neo-shamanic spiritual materialism.

As a practicing psychotherapist––and as the book’s subtitle suggests––Harris is particularly interested in ayahuasca’s reported effects on ailments such as treatment-resistant depression. Media attention, such as a 2006 National Geographic article whose author reported instantaneous and miraculous healing of a life-long depression, has set off something of a gold rush of interest in ayahuasca, especially among populations suffering from issues such as intractable depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress (call it the “I’ll have what she’s having” effect).

One of the most valuable services provided by Listening to Ayahuasca is an honest assessment of this potential, as well as an orientation guide for individuals hoping to turn to this medicine to get healing otherwise unavailable on the Western front. Harris is commendably upfront about the shortcomings and limitations of available knowledge and research, and goes out of her way not to portray ayahuasca as a miracle cure-all or magic arrow against all misfortune. She balances accounts of when the medicine has worked with accounts of when it has not, as well as the complications that can arise and dangers involved. It’s a welcome viewpoint, in light of the fact that as ayahuasca’s popularity has surged its demand has created myriad opportunities for the unscrupulous to prey upon the unwary. Incredible healing is possible, in increasingly well documented ways. Also possible however is that people seeking healing become lost, confused, and unintentionally or even intentionally damaged.

Listening to Ayahuasca is, in the words of its author “intended for people considering ayahuasca and for people drinking the medicine. I hope it will help them integrate their insights and visions into their daily lives. There is much work people can do on their own to maximize the healing that ayahuasca offers. I also hope this book will inform psychotherapists, so they can provide a supportive and respectful container for the unfolding of healing.”

A major focus of the book is Harris’ personal journey with ayahuasca, especially the cognitive dissonance occasioned by her attempts to bridge the often incommensurable worldviews of western psychotherapy and ceremonial shamanism, as well as the ontological crises brought on by her uncanny encounters with an entity––the voice of Grandmother Ayahuasca––which may or may not be real in the traditional sense. Harris tells the story of her difficulties trying to find a common reference frame with practitioners of ayahuasca shamanism, as well as the uneasiness bedeviling her attempts to determine whether the voice she heard was an inner voice of personal intuition, or a separate entity with an independent and independently verifiable existence. It’s the story of a person on a quest for an answer that can never really be found, and of the maturity that attends finally coming to terms with that fact. Harris writes about her journey with honesty and clarity, offering many observations germane to the experience of therapy for people who are processing similar experiences.

As for how the book speaks to people already familiar with Grandmother Ayahuasca, I can at present only speculate. Paradoxically for a reviewer on this website, I must be the only kid left on the block who still hasn’t tried the stuff. In the interest of full disclosure, I must report having had a massive teenage fixation on William Burroughs’ account of his adventures, and so romanticized that particular narrative that for years I was irrationally unwilling to settle for anything less than a set of conditions long since unavailable for replication. Having now as an adult read Listening to Ayahuasca I believe I may finally be ready to give it a shot.

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