Life-Altering Lessons of the Psychedelic Ayahuasca Plant
Rak Razam is an Australian journalist, author, speaker and self-described mystic, whose gonzo-style coverage of ayahuasca tourism exposes and explores how the ancient Amazonian spiritual healing tradition is impacting the lives of more and more Westerners—and vice versa. As Razam puts it in his book, Aya Awakenings, ayahuasca is “a plant medicine that has been used by the indigenous people of South America for millennia to heal physical ailments—and, they claim, to cleanse and purify the spirit.”
As the New York Times reported in June, ayahuasca is taking off fast in the West.
“In a world increasingly dominated by screen time, not dream time, it is not surprising that many people, having binged on yoga and meditation for years, are turning to a more dramatic catalyst for inner growth. But those who swear by ayahuasca’s usefulness (many say it’s like having 10 years of therapy in a night) also caution that it has to be treated seriously, calling their experiences while under its influence ‘work’ because, in addition to causing them to vomit and sometimes have diarrhea, it can be frightening and challenging to the psyche.”
Aya Awakenings describes Razam’s encounters with shamans, ayahuasca tourism and the plant spirit herself in the depths of the Peruvian Amazon. From the book:
“It feels like some whacked-out reality TV show, a generational snapshot of a new psychedelic wave just before it breaks. Bright-eyed Westerners about to die and be reborn in the humid jungles of Peru, drinking the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca .… The native men and women who safeguard the knowledge of the vine and of the spirits it is said to reveal are the curanderos and curanderas—or, as the West would call them, shamans. Their role has been that of healer, priest, and traveler between worlds, acting as intermediaries between the spiritual dimension and this world on behalf of their patients.
Yet the demands of the work and the rise of Western materialism throughout South America have seen a fall in prestige—and customers— for the curanderos. The profession, usually hereditary, was in danger of extinction before an unprecedented wave of Western gringos started coming in search of ayahuasca and the healing it can provide.”
Razam recently completed a documentary based on his book and experiences with ayahuasca, which is now distributed by DevolverDigital.com.
He spoke with AlterNet about his book and documentary, and life-altering, ayahuasca-induced realizations:
Q: I was curious watching your film if afterwards—after your experiences [with ayahuasca and living with shamans in the Amazon]—it was difficult to return to western society. Was it a strange experience, or what was it like?
A: Yes, to all of the above. It's funny because I first went to Peru and had those experiences in 2006. It's really only now, when the book has been out and the film has been made, that I can really let go.
Part of the framing of the book, is around Joseph Campbell's heroic return.
[Editor's Note: Joseph Campbell was an American writer best known for his work in comparative mythology. He theorized that myths from around the world and throughout human history follow a particular pattern called the "hero's journey." He outlined the various, predictable steps of that pattern in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The "heroic return" is one of the steps of the hero's journey, in which he or she returns, following various trials, in triumph.]
As part of the journey, you leave. There's a departure from the known world. It's going out into the new world and having the initiation or the experience.
Then there's the return. It's not complete without the return. Part of the return is when you share it with the tribe. They grow from the knowledge that you have gone out and carved out. You've hunted that knowledge and had that experience. You're bringing it back and feeding the tribe. The bigger the experience is, maybe, the longer it takes to digest. I'm not sure, but it's taken me seven years or so to really make media, make artifacts (the film and the book). ….
On another level, I locked myself away literally for three months and worked about 18 hour days getting the book down, basically channeling from my raw notes. The transition was still full of the vibrational memories.
When you have an ayahuasca ceremony, it's important to do a dieta (specified diet) to prepare in advance. It's also important in the days afterwards to create space in your life to then let it just be with you and let it integrate into you before you move forward. I guess I had a pocket of time, which was writing up the book, which enabled me to integrate better. The world goes on and you got to keep chopping wood and carrying water. Whatever you've healed in yourself or whatever revealed in yourself, you then got to take that out into the world. That journey continues.
Q: What are the healing benefits of psychedelics, and ayahuasca in particular?
A: What ayahuasca is doing as it parallels and it comes into the western cultural mainframe, is it's pointing out these things in medicine. It's not just of the body and of the physical quantifiable level that western medicine understands. There's a deeper level, not just of healing, but of what sickness really is and of what, I guess, the soul is.
This is the thing, which has been missing on a core level: trying to look at the root causes of issues, not just the symptoms. The entire world is, at the moment, out of balance. Our relationship with the planet is out of balance. The ecology is out of balance. The politics are out of balance. The monetary system is out of balance. You name it. It seems to be unsustainable “isms” that we're living in that are not in right relationship with the planet.…
It's very strategic and very serendipitous, really, that many, many tribal peoples all across the world still are caretakers for, and have the knowledge and the heritage of, ayahuasca and this entheogenic revival of looking at what the planet gives us with these plants and their substances. They have held the flame, while, basically western culture—the dominating culture, which has subjugated so many of these cultures—is now getting ready again to come back into balance. Ayahuasca is going out into the world.
Q. What originally interested you in psychedelics and ayahuasca in particular?
A. I came into this culture of altered space, I guess you could call it, through psychedelics, through the traditional methods in my teens and in my early 20s—with LSD predominantly. …I first came across [ayahuasca] around 2006. Funnily enough, this is how my story and microcosm again can reflect larger issues. I was re-branding myself as a gonzo experiential journalist. I was actually at the 2006 LSD Symposium in Basel, Switzerland which was Albert Hoffman's 100th birthday party. He was alive and well. It was a turning point, again, for LSD and for psychedelics: getting in the news, getting in the mainstream and there being a cultural shift. It felt like the time had come for psychedelics to be talked about and to be legitimized again.
That was my first assignment as a gonzo journalist. My second assignment was going to the Amazon and diving deep into the mythic archetype of the shaman and this business of spirituality in ayahuasca tourism. They were months apart.
I really think that psychedelics and LSD have a very symbiotic relationship with ayahuasca, culturally. If culture is a garden, then it feels like the garden has been tended in previous seasons by things like LSD....
Even in western culture, in the mystery schools, and in the secret societies, we have had long ongoing relationships with these altered states. They're not just random altered states. They're not what they tried to say in the '60s of hallucinogens or psychomimetics, putting this formal language on it. What they do is, they have the potential to reconnect us not just to ourselves, but to the larger rhythms and the larger ecology and spirit of the planet.
Q: What makes it important to you to educate people about these substances? What drives you to talk about and to share what you've experienced with other people?
A:I'm a writer and I'm a journalist and I'm communicating and documenting what used to be called the counter culture and I call the ultraculture now: this multiplicity of communities which are engaging in archaic practices or ways of being which bring them closer back to the planet and its rhythms—whether that's altered states or counter culture or sovereignty movements or using technology.
I guess ultimately I'm more of a mystic, or as much a mystic as I am a writer. ... Things like ayahuasca or psychedelics, they're only the tip of the iceberg. They're the finger which points at the moon; they're not the moon itself. What these things have revealed to me is that there's a deeper pattern and a deeper game afoot, I guess. I really feel that in the planetary organism of the Earth itself, and then the larger, deeper cosmic ecology, there are rhythms within rhythms. We're one species among many on the planet and we've thrown the world out of balance.
I feel with these psychoactives or these entheogens, which the planet itself secretes—which basically only the higher mammals get high off—there's a reason. There's a synergy between the planet and these creations and there's a larger pattern unfolding, despite all the war and heartache and seeming evil in the world. … Things are changing. There's a new cycle beginning and I can really feel that. I think many people around the world feel that. I'm hoping to help give language to that and give perspective to that. It's deeper than ayahuasca. It's deeper than the psychedelics. It's a return to I guess what Terrence McKenna called this archaic revival....
It's like John Lennon [said]. Peace is there if you want it. Utopia is there if we want it, but it's all about consciousness. I'm not pushing my agenda here, or saying that we should all elevate our consciousness. What I'm saying is I think the Earth is in cahoots with with our subconscious here. It's bringing us back into the garden, into this sustainable frequency of being with it, and that is elevating our consciousness.
I'm saying there's a larger pattern at work. … It sounds very cosmic because we don't have the language for it—it's been exorcised from our paradigm by the powers that be over many generations, over hundreds of years.…
It's like there is a culture war and a propaganda war going on. The systems [that be] aren't working and they need change. People need to know what are the alternatives.
Things like psychedelics have been so stigmatized for so long. Even when they first came out they affected a large portion of the population, but it was done in such an intense way that it alienated a lot of people. Things like ayahuasca and the healing it provides and the idea that it's natural substances, it's really winning over and wooing a lot of people of all demographics. It's the timing of it. It's something that's larger than us as humans. There's a larger process at work.