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Full Review
Ayahuasca: Hallucinogens, Consciousness, and the Spirit of Nature
by Ralph Metzner
Thunder's Mouth Press 
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Jon Hanna, 7/24/2006

Oscar Janiger has been noted to say, “Nothing is more boring than an individual’s personal account of his LSD experience” (Stafford 1990), and one might presume by this comment that Janiger would also find trip stories related to any other entheogen, including ayahuasca, equally dull. Those who agree with this viewpoint won’t be too impressed with the latest offering by Ralph Metzner, Ayahuasca: Hallucinogens, Consciousness, and the Spirit of Nature, as it is largely composed of numerous personal accounts of ayahuasca experiences.

In considering Janiger’s attitude, I am reminded of the different reactions that my mother and father had towards the retelling of dreams at the breakfast table. Dad couldn’t stand these stories, and would frequently exit to the kitchen to fix more coffee, so as not to be subject to the wandering illogical dreamscapes of the rest of us. On the other hand, my mother and brothers sat enthralled by tales of flying, or realizing that one was naked in public, or losing one’s teeth, or suddenly being back in school taking a test that hadn’t been studied for. I suspect that entheogenic “trip stories” are similar to dream descriptions; some people can’t stand them, while others sit spellbound.

Most readers of The Entheogen Review probably fall into the latter category, like me. And I thoroughly enjoyed the numerous “hyperspatial maps” that those cartographers of mind described in Metzner’s compilation. 24 psychonauts shared their experiences with ayahuasca in the first half of this book. These tales are told predominately by Western non-native explorers and set in the USA, although there are a few voyages that took place in the Amazon, some within the syncretic religious traditions of the UDV and the Santo Daime. For the most part, those who shared their experiences with ayahuasca, participated in ritualistic group settings that combined psychotherapy and spiritual searching in what might be termed a “neo-shamanistic” approach. There are a number of elements to these rituals that are common to several of the reports. Some of these included fasting, sitting in a circle, opening/closing ceremonies related to the four directions, passing a “talking stick” that allows each person in turn to sing or speak, sitting or lying down, periods of silence, periods of music and/or drumming, dancing, and breaking the fast. In some cases the participants wore earplugs and eyeshades. Most ceremonies are held at night, either in darkness or by the light of a fire. Voyages reported on in this compendium run the full gamut. Some types of experiences included:

1) Returning to past times, such as Nazi Germany concentration camp scenes, Native American Indian scenes, and Egyptian ritual scenes, or specific past-life regression experiences.

2) Contacting etherial or other-dimensional beings such as dead relatives, energy parasites, plant teachers or spirits, animal spirit guides, jungle elves (“little green guys”), or specific gods/goddesses from Egyptian, Mayan, Hindu, Buddhist, and earth-worship cultures.

3) Comparison of ayahuasca to other entheogens, such as LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, mescaline, etc.

4) Specific types of energy contact and interaction, such as kundalini energy, healing energy, grief energy, chakra energy, crystal gazing, channeling, direction of visions through shamanic icaros, telepathy, prophetic visions of the future, out-of-body experiences, ego fragmentation, physical dismemberment, planetary consciousness, simultaneously experienced duality, and awareness of the law of karma.

5) Reliving one’s birth or experiencing one’s own death.

6) Experiencing psychological, spiritual, or physical healing.

7) Relating to the experience through various philosophical/religious ideation, such as Castaneda’s “warrior’s impeccability,” Pablo Amaringo’s painted visions, Gurdjieffian or Jungian concepts, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism, yoga, and meditation practices.

Normally I might wince at some of the “new age” beliefs reported on. But somehow, within the context of ayahuasca voyaging, I became more open to the various modes in which people related to and interpreted their experiences.

One thing that I found quite striking was the large number of people who reported snakes or serpents as integral parts of their ayahuasca experience. Metzner touches on this a bit in the book’s introduction, when he mentions The Cosmic Serpent by Canadian anthropologist Jeremy Narby. The ayahuasqueros “told Narby that the serpent spirit is the mother of ayahuasca.” The serpent image is quite prevalent in the art of Pablo Amaringo, and apparently other Amazonian Indian art as well. Of the 24 people whose experiences are related in this book, just over half of them mention snakes or serpents. Specific imagery of this type strikes me as being fascinating, as I don’t believe that it is so frequently reported with other entheogens. Which got me to wondering why this imagery turns up so commonly with ayahuasca voyages?

Claudio Naranjo has noted that naive Westerners dosed with harmaline tended to have visions of snakes, as well as jungle cats and large birds of prey; imagery that is consistent with the cultural context of traditional ayahuasca use. He has proposed that these animals seen together comprise a “dragon” symbol, which is produced through the ayahuasca alkaloids allowing one to experience kundalini energy (Naranjo 1987).

There is also the thought that those areas accessed when one takes certain drugs may have a reality beyond the mind of the subject. If this is true, it wouldn’t be surprising that when using a specific drug, one opens a specific door to a realm that is populated with specific discarnate entities or imagery—in this case, with snakes. A related idea—that is only given brief mention by Metzner, when he lists Rupert Sheldrake among a number of individuals whose theories jive with subjective psychonautical experiences—is that specific “morphogenic fields” of energy might be created by the repeated ritual use of an entheogen. Since ayahuasca has been used for hundreds if not thousands of years in the Amazon, it might not be surprising if those new to this realm have visions of Amazonian snakes, especially when this has been reported as a traditional component of the experience. An interesting story was recently told to me by a woman who noticed that her ayahuasca visions were always mirror images; the same visions reflected above and below. She was consuming ayahuasca in the USA. It was only when she finally went to the Amazon and was floating down the river in a canoe that she was hit by the fact that the entire view of the jungle was reflected in a manner similar to her ayahuasca visions. The “morphogenic field” of her ayahuasca visions seemed to have been showing her their home turf! While entirely subjective, this experience could be seen by some to lend credence to the idea that snakes are seen by modern psychonauts because they have long been a traditional element in archaic shamanic Amazonian visions, and hence have built up a resonant field of non-corporal visual energy.

There is, perhaps, another more mundane explanation for visions of snakes. 19 of the 24 psychonautical reports in Ayahuasca describe gastrointestinal distress experienced while the person was on ayahuasca; nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea are all commonly mentioned. It has been said that ayahuasca “can feel like a boa entering one’s mouth and chewing through to the other end with involuntary defecation and emesis” (Mu 1988). Reports presented in Ayahuasca from different psychonauts noted:

Then I met another serpent in my vision…it entered my body through my mouth and started to slowly wind its way through my stomach and intestines over the next two or three hours…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. (p 48)

I began to hear the “swoosh” of a large snake. I felt my abdomen crackle as if the skin of a snake were being shed…I physically purged into the bowl. (p 95)

Once in my stomach, it felt as if I had swallowed a live boa who was inching through the acid labyrinth of my guts, pausing to squeeze them tight in sequential spasms. (p 109)

A huge serpentine roto-rooter moving through my systems, sparing nothing, unearthing everything…The ayahuasca medicine seems to have a special affinity for the gastrointestinal system: it snakes its way through the body, seeking out an eliminating obstructions to life energy flow. I sometimes think of it as a form of kundalini, a Liquid Plum’r for the soul. (pp 117 & 123)

People speak of becoming snakes, of eating snakes, and of being eaten by snakes. Certainly all of these states of being could relate directly to the intestinal havoc that ayahuasca reeks on one’s system. Visions of snakes, while undergoing this sort of a physical assault (in the particular mind state that ayahuasca produces), don’t seem too surprising. Considering that ayahuasca produces nausea, vomiting and diarrhea in many (a combination of physical effects that, in totality, is rarely seen with other entheogens), it doesn’t seem too odd that people commonly see snakes on ayahuasca, and not as frequently when on other drugs.

The second half of Ayahuasca contains objective scientific papers by Dennis McKenna, Charles Grob, and Jace Callaway, as well as a summation by Metzner. As each paper was written independently, there is some repetitively information presented related to ayahuasca’s history and chemistry.

McKenna predominately deals with ayahuasca’s history, from its prehistoric roots, to its scientific discovery in the 19th Century, taxonomic and chemical discoveries of the early 20th Century, and more modern research and developments, noting the 1967 U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare symposium “Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs.” McKenna also mentions the Brazilian syncretic religion União do Vegetal, some members of whom were subjects in the Hoasca Project study that McKenna participated in to investigate the chemistry, psychological effects, and psychopharmacology of ayahuasca.

Grob discusses the context in which traditional visionary plant medicines have been used, and presents information on contemporary ayahuasca use as well, including another Brazilian religious group, the Santo Daime. The use of ayahuasca analogues by modern psychonauts is briefly mentioned. Grob presents an outline describing psychological characteristics common to the type of altered awareness brought on by entheogenic plants, and also relates commonalities reported relating to ayahuasca specifically, noting that snakes, jaguars, and other predatory animals of the rain forest are prevalent visions.

Callaway’s paper was the most technical but also the most interesting, as the information presented was less redundant than the previous two papers. Phytochemistry of a few visionary plants is presented, and a comparison is made to several neurochemicals responsible for primary human brain function. The neuropharmacology of ayahuasca in particular is discussed, both from the perspective of how the β-carbolines monoamine oxidase inhibitors work, and what systems the tryptamines plug into. Callaway briefly notes his theory suggesting that DMT might be responsible for the visual aspect of dreams. He also quite importantly warns readers of the possible hazards of combining SSRI drugs and ayahuasca. Callaway provides more detailed information related to specific findings by the Hoasca Project, including the variation of harmala alkaloids found in different samples (and types) of Banisteriopsis caapi, the variation of DMT found in different samples of Psychotria viridis, and variations in individual metabolism of ayahuasca, as well as physiological changes produced from the ingestion of ayahuasca.

Metzner is to be commended for putting together a solid collection of subjective and objective information that illuminates the potential healing quality of ayahuasca. The stories of personal growth are compelling, and the scientific evidence presented speaks to the relative safety of ayahuasca when properly consumed. While there are sure to be a multitude of books published on the topic in years to come, Ayahuasca should stand the test of time as an historically significant contribution on contemporary psychonautical therapy.

294 pp; no index, chapter endnote bibliographies. [NOTE: Since this review was originally published, the first edition of this book by Thunder’s Mouth Press has gone out-of-print, and hence it fetches prices of $75.00 and more on the rare book market. A new edition is available from Inner Traditions under the title Sacred Vine of the Spirits: Ayahuasca.

Originally Published In : The Entheogen Review, 1999

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