A Feminist On a Mission to Introduce Women to Ayahuasca, the 'Cosmic Spirit'
The first words Zoe Helene ever said to her husband Chris Kilham, an ethnobotanist who is the “Medicine Hunter” on Fox News, were in reference to a boar’s tusk bracelet clasped around his wrist. The tanned white man in the Hawaiian shirt had a “wild vibe about him.” He was fidgeting in his chair behind a booth at the bustling Natural Products Expo East trade show in 2005, which Helene, who worked in natural products communications, was attending for business.
She sat down next to him and said, “You’re not supposed to wear that if you’re not a chief.”
Helene, an artist and wildlife activist, had spent ages 9-19 living in New Zealand. She knew a thing or two about the region’s indigenous Maori culture, and recognized the bracelet as a traditional adornment. She also has an MFA in costume design and takes special note of what people wear and why. She thought the boar’s tusk bracelet was “a typical tourist’s fashion faux pas.”
As it turned out, Kilham was a chief. When Helene met him, he’d just returned from a medicine hunt working with the psychoactive plant Kava in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, east of northern Australia. He’d participated in an epic fire walk, and was an honorary chief on the island of Pentacost in the village of Baie Martellie.
“At the time, he was also Vanuatu’s Honorary Consul to the United States,” Helene says. “I didn’t know any of this. I just found his energy intriguing and I loved the way he moved....To this day I still don’t know where I got the chutzpah to just blurt that out, first thing,” Helene says.
But thanks to her chutzpah, the next time you need a tax write-off you can make a donation that will help women travel to the Amazon and sip the psychedelic concoction called ayahuasca, via Helene's financial backing program, the Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grant.
Plant Spirit Grant
Helene and Kilham eloped in 2007, and since then the two of them have traveled the world exploring the traditions and plant medicines of indigenous peoples, as part of Kilham’s ethnobotanical investigations. It was by way of this work that Helene first encountered ayahuasca. Native to the Amazon rainforest region, ayahuasca is a traditional plant medicine used by indigenous peoples throughout South America in sacred healing rituals. But while some scientific study of the brew exists, psychedelics like ayahuasca are strictly controlled throughout the US, Asia and Europe, so research has been limited.
Photo: Chris Kilham and Zoe Helene. Photo by Ivan Kashinsky, courtesy of Cosmic Sister.
When Helene encountered ayahuasca nearly a decade ago she had never heard of it. In the years since, stories of its benefits have surged around the globe. Today a booming ayahuasca tourism industry has developed, as thousands—if not millions —of Americans and Europeans participate in ayahuasca ceremonies throughout Peru, Costa Rica and nearby nations every year (the numbers here are tough to exactly call since most pople don't speak publicly about their psychedelic tourism). The healing properties of the tea are widely reported to reverse mental afflictions like PTSD, depression and anxiety. Many people also claim it mitigates physical ailments, like chronic pain and cancer.
Today, Helene is among the most vocal proponents of drinking, preserving and educating people about ayahuasca. Since she feels ayahuasca has improved her own life, she decided to make it one of her life’s goals to help other women connect with the potent psychedelic. She came up with the idea for the Plant Spirit Grant because she noticed a gap between women who could benefit from the “consciousness-expanding” experience of a Peruvian ayahuasca retreat, and the money it takes to get there (the ceremonies alone often cost $2000 or more).
Photo: Ayahuasca ceremonial maloca at Nihue Rao ayahuasca retreat center. Photo by Tracey Eller, courtesy of Cosmic Sister.
Your skeptical side isn’t crazy for raising its eyebrows about writing off your donation to an ayahuasca grant: taking, making, purchasing or possessing known psychedelics (including ayahuasca, with some religious exceptions) is illegal in the U.S. However, a donation to Cosmic Sister’s nonprofit fiscal sponsor, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) is tax deductible and 100% legitimate.
While MAPS is known for its scientific research-based work, Brad Burge, director of communications for MAPS, said Cosmic Sister is in line with the nonprofit’s educational mission. Any money given through MAPS supports the educational component of Helene’s program. Helene pays primarily out of pocket for the ceremonial side of things, via sales of products and services in the natural products and sustainability sectors.
As for the women who’ll be drinking the brew in Peru, not only is ayahuasca legal there, the Peruvian government has designated it a "Cultural Patrimony."
Photo: Plant Spirit Grant recipient Susan Sheldon at Temple of the Way of Light during ceremony. Photo by Chris Kilham, courtesy of Cosmic Sister.
Under the supervision of a shaman and under the influence of ayahuasca, plant spirit recipients set out to purge physically and mentally, witness lucid dreamlike visions, heal and confront themselves in deep reflection. Afterward, they’re encouraged, though not required, to tell the world about their experiences. The idea is to promote realistic education about ayahuasca, and psychedelics at large.
Attorney Richard "Dick" Evans helped Helene to draw up her grant agreement, and said its purpose is similar to most contracts: "to make sure that all parties are on the same page as to their respective rights, duties and expectations." He has worked with MAPS in the past and says Helene and Kilham are similar to MAPS in that they are pioneering "the exploration of inner space in from the fringes, giving it the seriousness that it has long deserved and been denied."
He called Helene courageous for proceeding with her unusual grant program.
"Ninety-nine out of 100 people would let ther fear of something going wrong deter them from taking these steps," he said in an email. "Her approach, however, is to do her homework very thoroughly, and to insure that the participants do their homework as well. And when you’ve done your homework, you can go out on a limb (if you don’t mind mixing metaphors)."
Evans said he predicts that someday, "after we’ve explored every square inch of land, the depth of the oceans and a few other planets," humanity's research will turn to the human mind.
"Zoe will be recognized as one of the very early pioneers into this new and forbidding territory," he said.
Photo: Shaman Estella at DreamGlade retreat center. Photo by Tracey Eller, courtesy of Cosmic Sister.
Two companion projects supporting the original Plant Spirit Grant are Helene’s Women of the Psychedelic Renaissance, and the Cosmic Sisters of Cannabis projects, which are dedicated to educating the public about the real benefits and risks of psychedelics and cannabis. Both projects filter creative funding to help women develop quality educational materials (writing, photos, presentations, and so on). Plant Spirit Grant recipients are often also involved with these projects.
“I thought it was important to educate people not only about the benefits, but the risks—and there are risks for women especially,” Helene said. “There are cases of sexual abuse during ceremony, which is awful but happens more than you think. It can be mentally and physically taxing to work with these plants, and oftentimes what you’re presented with during an experience with sacred plants like ayahuasca requires a lot of digesting, a lot of processing.”
Creating Cosmic Sisterhood
Cosmic Sister had nothing to do with psychedelics in the beginning.
Helene has worked for years in communications for the natural products industry, and then in the field of interactive media. She conceived of Cosmic Sister after becoming fed up with the sexism she encountered in the industries where she worked. She remembers calling a board meeting sometime in the mid-'90s. She was the only woman on the board, so the men treated her like a secretary, assuming she would get them coffee and take notes.
After working in tech, Helene became an independent contractor working in communications for big Americana brands, like Unilever. Eventually, she grew tired of promoting unsustainable brands and felt morally obligated to refocus her work on the natural products industry. To her dismay, in this industry loomed a brand of sexism she hadn’t yet encountered.
Photo via Shutterstock.com/Rawpixel.com.
When she married Chris Kilham, a high-profile man in the small community that makes up the natural products niche, “everything changed overnight.” For the first time, she felt like a trophy wife.
“I went to the same places where I was regarded professionally before, and I was treated so differently,” she says. “This was in a sector of business that professes to be more enlightened— these are the ‘sustainable’ businesses, right? People would come up and talk directly to Chris, and sometimes not even acknowledge me. I would try to get into the conversation or introduce myself, and they literally saw me as this girl on his arm. At first it was kind of funny, and then it wasn’t.”
As Helene got to know the other women who had married bigshot men in the industry, she realized she wasn’t alone. Even women who had impressive careers behind them were often disregarded by their colleagues as well as the media, in favor of the men who stood in the spotlight.
“I decided the only way we could counteract this trend was to support each other,” she says. Cosmic Sister, officially founded in 2008, was Helene’s way of evening out the working climate by promoting women and encouraging them to promote each other.
It was through Helene’s work with her husband, while researching and meeting with the indigenous Shipibo peoples in the Peruvian Amazon, that she first encountered Ayhuasca, which is a proper noun in Helene's eyes. She—along with many others who work with ayahuasca traditionally— believes it has a cognizant spirit.
“It sounds very woo-woo, but if you talk to all these big herbalists and ethnobotanists and some of the anthropologists, they will say that the term ‘plant spirit’ is not woo-woo at all,” Helene said. “It’s just a way of looking at it. Like you might say the 'spirit of the bear.’ Well, there are spirits in these plants—they’re living. And these sacred plants just seem to have spirits, or that’s how people interpret them in many cultures. The spirit of ayahuasca is quite different than the spirit of cannabis, for example, which is quite different from the spirit of peyote.”
To the majority of people, Helene says, ayahuasca appears as a feminine energy. Several indigenous Amazonian cultures consider ayahuasca to be a goddess-like deity, and/or messenger from the plant realm. This is one of the reasons Helene felt connecting women with ayahuasca was an intuitive choice.
“It seems to me that the vast majority of people experience ayahuasca as a feminine plant spirit—I am one of those people; we don’t know why this is,” Helene says. “Not everyone does, however. Chris doesn’t, so this comes up in conversation in our home fairly often. I’m a female, so it makes sense to me that ayahuasca comes to me as a female, in part because my theory is that the medicine helps us communicate with the subconscious parts of our own psyche, and to our own deepest inner wisdom, which is a nature wisdom.”
Helene created the Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit program to support women she sees doing “outstanding” work in the name of feminism, wilderness, wildlife and psychedelics. Nine women have already traveled to Peru for previous plant spirit grant sessions, and this year Helene has awarded grants to six more. They are women from all over the world, including journalists, photographers, a medical doctor, a yoga teacher, mothers, grandmothers and others. The group will travel in December to a new ayahuasca retreat center called DreamGlade, located outside of Iquitos, Peru.
Photo: Plant Spirit Grant recipient Susan Sheldon at Temple of the Way of Light. Photo by Zoe Helene.
Robyn Griggs Lawrence, author of several books including The Cannabis Kitchen Cookbook, and former editor in chief of Natural Home & Garden magazine, is a is part of this winter's trip. She has already experienced ayahuasca in the past, when she traveled to Peru with Helene and Kilham in the spring of 2013.
"I'd had breakthroughs with issues that had seemed intractable for much of my life," she said. "An eating disorder was probably the biggest. Zoe offered me the grant so that I could return to Peru the next fall to build on that. I cleared away a lot of noise and trauma, and I wanted to know what was next. That series of ceremonies helped me find a path forward that was not based on ego."
It also helped her commit to "working toward liberating and normalizing the cannabis plant"—which is what she's doing now.
Photo: Cosmic Sister Plant Spirit Grant recipient Robyn Lawrence with Shaman Estella. Photo by Zoe Helene.
"Zoe’s genuine concern and love for women and all beings has been an important part of my ayahuasca journeying," she says. "Her passion for sharing the miracle of ayahuasca has made a huge difference not only for me but for all of the grant recipients. I believe every one of them experienced deep healing and transformation like I did, and they’re now sharing their gifts with the world."
Helene said she receives hundreds of inquiries from women asking about the plant spirit grant. She’s proud of their diversity as far as personality, career paths and time of life, but says she’d like to see women of more diverse ethnic backgrounds applying.
“I don’t want this to be only white women,” she says. “But to date, all the women would be considered white in most circles, other than one Asian-American woman and a Columbian-American woman who will be with us in December.”
Photo: Zoe Helene and Cosmic Sister Susan Sheldon in the Amazon. Photo by Chris Kilham, courtesy of Cosmic Sister.
Something she makes clear to her grant recipients is that an ayahuasca retreat is not a vacation, ”not by any stretch of the imagination.”
“Ayahuasca is a strong hallucinogenic blend,” Helene says. The ayahuasca brew used in ceremony is a mixture of two plants native to the Amazon: the ayahuasca vine Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca means “vine of the soul”) and either chacruna or chagropanga, which both contain the psychotropic substance dimethyltryptamine. DMT is a chemical compound naturally produced in the human body. It is theoretically released in our brains at peak moments, like the time of death, or near-death experiences, as well as during deep REM sleep. Some researchers also theorize it can be released during orgasm and deep meditation.
“It is not a recreational drug, and if you’re coming at it from that perspective, you are in for a big surprise!”
The First Plant Spirit Grant
Helene and Chris Kilham dedicate their time and personal resources to creating awareness about plant medicines like ayahuasca, as well as the cultural contexts from which they are derived. Kilham works part time as a professor for the University of Massachusetts, and created a program in which he brings groups of his students on field study trips to the Amazon to learn about indigenous plants and practices.
It was on one of these trips that Helene met the first guinea pig recipient of the Plant Spirit Grant, Rachael Carlevale. Carlevale met Kilham through his class, the Shaman’s Pharmacy, which brought students to the jungle of Iquitos, Peru to live with native Shipibo practitioners. Carlevale was a pre-med senior student at the time, and had become fed up with the program’s heavy focus on prescribing pharmaceuticals, and answering problems with pills.
“It was driven by dollars rather than actually healing the whole person, more focused on the symptoms than the cause, that sort of thing,” she says. “I had a lab where you sat on the computer for two hours and basically it was like WebMD—you’d go through all these symptoms and try to figure out what pharmaceutical would be best for the person. And it just completely turned me off of that type of education.”
Carlevale, now a holistic health educator and yoga teacher who grows marijuana with her fiance in Colorado, says she’s always leaned toward organic, sustainable approaches to both life and healing. This drew her to Kilham’s class.
Photo: Rachael Carlevale in the Amazon jungle during her week long ayahuasca ceremony with Zoe Helene and Chris Kilham. Photo by Misia Landau, courtesy of Cosmic Sister.
Because she had to pay for the trip herself, Carlevale wrote to 72 companies asking them to help fund her trip. Nine responded, five pitched in, and she was on her way.
During the trip, Carlevale and Helene swapped stories and eventually became “like sisters.” They kept in touch over the next few years, as Carlevale’s life entered a rough patch. She was diagnosed with a uterine tumor, but refused a hysterectomy, opting for plant medicines like cannabis and other herbs. She reached out to Kilham and Helene for advice.
Carlevale had previously expressed interest in participating in an ayahuasca ceremony—something Helene believed could help her both mentally and physically. She and Kilham decided to bring Carlevale with them on their next trip to the Amazon and pay for her expenses out-of-pocket.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but this was really when the Plant Spirit Grant was born; it was a sort of trial run nobody knew about,” Helene says.
In the months following the ceremony, Carlevale’s tumor shrunk 20 millimeters. She was also taking high CBD cannabis concentrates, which she credits with some of the healing.
Photo: Rachael Carlevale with Shipibo artist in Iquitos, Peru. Photo by Zoe Helene.
“I think ayahuasca really helped on an emotional spiritual level as well as the cellular level,” Carlevale says. “It’s one of the most transformational experiences anyone can have in my opinion, because while you're there you’re feeling so many different things. It’s literally a paradigm shift of your understanding of yourself, and of the world, and your relationship to people and to nature. ... Personally, one of my weakest strengths was communicating. Telling people how I felt, that sort of thing, was really hard for me. I feel completely different now. Now it’s no problem.”
She feels proud to have been a part of the inspiration for the plant spirit grant. Today she is a member, featured on the Cosmic Sister collective website and works with Helene on several of the project’s initiatives.
“The work [Helene]’s doing with Cosmic Sister is just outstanding and fully needed,” Carlevale says. “There is not equality between the male and female sectors of our society, so it’s really just helping bring women to the forefront. One of the things [Helene] says is, to protect women, wilderness and wildlife. I love that, I resonate with that. That’s everyone. It’s really this connection for all these different females to feel supported and to support one another.”