A Shipibo woman painting a pot with a visual representation of a medicine song. Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

Ayahuasca Reader

Encounters with the Amazon's Sacred Vine

Inner Paths to Outer Space

Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies

Wasiwaska, Research Center for the Study of Psychointegrator Plants, Visionary Art and Consciousness. Florianópolis, Brazil. www.wasiwaska.org.

Luis Eduardo Luna was born in Florencia, in the Colombian Amazon region, in 1947. He studied Philosophy and Literature at the Complutense University of Madrid. He earned an interdisciplinary Masters degree while at the same time teaching Spanish and Latin American Literature at the Department of Romance Languages of Oslo University. In 1979 he moved to Finland where he is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Swedish School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. In 1989 he received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Comparative Religion at Stockholm University, and in 2000 an honorary doctorate from St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. A Guggenheim Fellow and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, he is the author of Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon (1986), and with Pablo Amaringo of Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (1991). He is co-editor with Steven F. White of Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon’s Sacred Vine (2000). In 1986 he co-founded with Pablo Amaringo the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting of Pucallpa, Peru, and served as its Director of International Exhibitions until 1994. He was Professor of Anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil (1994-1998), has lectured about Amazonian shamanism and modified states of consciousness worldwide, and has curated exhibitions of visionary art in several countries.

Luna has over 30 years of experience with ayahuasca in various contexts: as an anthropologist with indigenous groups and among urban and rural mestizo ayahuasqueros in Peru and Colombia, with all the syncretic Brazilian religious organizations that use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and as a .facilitator in specially designed workshops. See his webste at www.wasiwaska.org.


Ayahuasca, a psychotropic preparation created by upper Amazonian people since time immemorial, has been the subject of an increasing number of scientific and popular publications. Today, thousands of people from many countries and walks of life have had experience with it. Ayahuasca is the Quechua name, widely used in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, and to a lesser extend in Brazil, where it has been adopted by religious organizations that refer to the beverage either as Santo Daime or Vegetal. It is prepared by brewing the stem of Banisteriopsis caapi, a vine of the Malpighiaceae family, and the leaves of Psychotris viridis, in the Rubiaceae, locally known as chacruna or chacrona. In Colombia as well as areas of the Ecuadorean Amazon, Diplopterys cabrerana, a vine belonging also to the Malphighiaceae locally known as chagropanga, is added to B. caapi to prepare a beverage (as a cold infusion or as a brew) called yajé (also spelled yagé). Some indigenous groups make a drink of only B. caapi, in which case I propose to use just the term caapi. Banisteriopsis caapi contains two main alkaloids, harmine and tetrahydroharmine (some varities contain also traces of harmaline), while both Psychotria viridis and Diplopterys cabrerana contain the powerful visionary alkaloid dimethyltrytamine (DMT), which is not orally active when ingested alone due to oxidation by the enzyme MAO (monoamine oxidase) in the liver and gut wall. In the presence of harmine, a MAO inhibitor, DMT crosses the brain-blood barrier and attaches to 2A and 1A serotonin receptors in the CNS (central nervous system), causing dramatic perceptual, cognitive and mood changes. Ayahuasca (as well as yajé) is thus an invention of upper Amazonian indigenous groups, also famous by their discovery of the properties of other plants, such as those involved in the preparation of curare, a powerful muscular relaxant, various species of rubber essential to the automobile revolution, as well as the domestication of numerous plants, such as tobacco, and many species of palms. The Amazon area is gradually being recognized as a center of high culture previous to the European invasion that brought unimaginable destruction to the whole continent, with the disappearance within 150 years of around 95% of its population, mostly due to contagious diseases for which it had no natural defenses (see for example Mann 2005).

Ayahuasca (and yajé) is used within a shamanistic complex by numerous indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon with various purposes, such as divination, diagnosing illnesses, transformation into animals or more generally to get in touch with normally unseen realms subjacent to ordinary reality, including visits to the primordial time where humans and animals acquired their present shapes. The concept of reality among indigenous groups suggests a many-worlds interpretation of the real. Ayahuasca and other sacred plants facilitate access to these other realities. Its importance is reflected in the myths of origin. Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, who worked among Tukanoan indigenous groups of Colombia (also living on the Brazilian side of the border) collected a myth that I present here in a highly condensed form (Reichel-Dolmatoff (1975:134-136): The Sun Father is the Master of Yajé. He impregnated a woman who looked at Him through the eye. She gave birth to the Yajé vine in the form of a radiant child. When she entered the maloca or communal house she asked, “Who is the father of this child”. One after the other several men, the ancestors of the Tukano, said “I am his father”, the first cutting his umbilical cord, others grabbing him by his fingers, his arms and legs, tearing him into pieces, each getting his own kinds of yajé. With it they also got the rules by which to live, and other things with which to reciprocate: conversations, songs, food, and also evil things. They found their place, their way of life.

Among the Cashinahua and other Pano indigenous groups of Peru and Brazil (who call ayahuasca nixi pae) the origin of the vine is in the sub aquatic realm. According to Lagrou (2000:33) the ancestor named Yube enters the water world of his spiritual kin, the snakes, to marry the beautifully-painted snake woman whose vision had seduced him. He is initiated into taking ayahuasca but he fails to resist the fear induced by the visions. He cries out, offending his snake kin, owners of the brew, and escapes, only to be found and wounded by his angry kin a year later. Before he dies, he transmits to his people his knowledge of the brew’s preparation and its song.

Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi). Photo by Johanne Grue Danielsen

In other groups the plants from which the beverage is prepared came from the bones, flesh or blood of mythical beings. Numerous Amazonian indigenous groups consider B. caapi, together with tobacco and coca, as highly sacred, one of the greatest gifts to humanity.

Since at least the beginning of the twentieth century ayahuasca has been adopted by segments of the mestizo population of Peru, Colombia and Ecuador. In Peru ayahuasca, along other plants, often psychotropic, is considered a doctor, a plant-teacher (Luna 1984, 1986). A new phenomenon took places in the states of Acre and Rondonia, in the Brazilian Amazon. Religious leaders originally from the mostly Afro-Brazilian Northeast created religious organizations, a mixture of popular Catholicism, in some cases Afro-Brazilian ideas, European esotericism, native Amazonian beliefs and the use of ayahuasca as a sacrament. There has been a rapid expansion of these religious organizations in urban centers of the whole country, later with offshoots in other Latin American countries, Europe (mostly Holland and Spain), the United States, and Japan.

Consequently, in the last fifteen to twenty years thousands of people have had access to the ayahuasca experience, either by traveling to Amazonian countries, mostly Peru, or by joining the rituals of Brazilian religious organizations, or through practitioners from various backgrounds that offer ayahuasca sessions in many countries. Significant religious syncretism has occurred since its use depends on cultural setting. A variety of therapeutic methods have also been the incorporation within or around the ritual setting. Experiences are often extremely powerful, featuring contact with entities, animal or plant spirits, and journeys to other realms. In Westerners the ayahuasca ingestion often elicits discussions of a philosophical nature, as people try to somehow make sense of their experiences. Many claim that ayahuasca has been a veritable teacher to them, and it is not uncommon that ayahuasca is considered as an intelligent being, a mother or grandmother, ideas similar to those found among Amazonian indigenous groups.

It is my intention to present here some reflections on the ayahuasca experience based on fieldwork I carried out among some indigenous groups in Colombia and Peru, Peruvian mestizo practitioners, members of Brazilian religious organizations as well as among contemporary westerners from a number of countries. I will also draw materials from my contact with other researchers and my own investigations throughout the years with ayahuasca.

The role of ayahuasca among indigenous groups

The Amazon area is not only biologically, but also culturally diverse. There are cultural differences between the various indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon in terms of social structure and habitats. There is for example a contrast between humans living in nutrient rich vàrzea forests versus those living in relatively unproductive terra firme forests. There are also commonalities, such as the institution of shamanism and what has been called animism, the belief that nature, including rock and winds, rivers and thunder, is animated and intelligent, and that it is possible to establish a rapport with it. Another common belief is that human beings posses various souls, some of which transcends the dissolution of the body and may interact with the living. Certain plants, if taken under certain conditions, facilitate access to normally occult knowledge through altered states of consciousness. These are sacred plants such as tobacco (especially strong varieties of Nicotiana rustica), coca (there are 403 described species of Erythroxylum), Anadenanthera peregrina (locally known as yopo, paricá, cohoba and many other vernacular names), Virola especies, of which potent psychotropic snuffs are made, and of course the plants involved in the preparation of yajé and ayahuasca.

Chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

Ayahuasca plays an important role in many Upper Amazon societies. Jean Langdon (2000:21), who worked among the Siona of Colombia, points out the centrality of yagé and its rituals to their notion of well being and health, as well as for their acquisition of knowledge about the occult reality. In Siona society most narratives can be characterized as shamanic in the sense that they deal with shamans and/or with experiences in the occult world when dreaming or taking yagé. Their universe is characterized by two superimposed realities, “this side”, every day reality, and “the other side”, each composed of five disks arranged hierarchically beginning with the level under the earth and extending up to the end of the heavens, all populated by entities. Each domain has specific sounds, rhythms, music, smell and colors that can be visited, although these are full of dangers, and the inexperienced can be trapped in the evil spirit domain.

Els Lagrou (2000:32) reports that among the Cashinahua of Northwest Brazil and Eastern Peru “Ayahuasca is a means of transport and of transformation, a means of reconnecting with invisible layers of the cosmos, as well as a way of making present the world and stories told in myth through imaginary experience.” Osmani, one of her informants, told her “you have to remember a myth before you drink the brew. If you concentrate well on the story, the story and its beings will appear to you in vision and you will understand the meaning this story has for your own life and experiences. You will feel the story. You will live it.” (Ibid. p. 33).

This last report goes along similar observations made earlier by Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff among the Tukano: “Taking yajé is called gahpí irí-inyári (from iri/to drink, inyári /to see), and is interpreted as a return to the cosmic uterus, to the “mine,” to the source of all things. It has the objective of reaffirming religious faith, through the personal experience of seeing with one’s own eyes the origin of the Universe and of mankind, together with all supernatural beings. On awakening from the trance, the individual remains convinced of the truth of the religious teachings” (Reichel-Dolmatoff 1971:174).

This idea is related to that of transformation into an animal, a common shamanistic motive in the Amazon area (as well as in traditional societies all over the world). The shaman is thought to transform into a predator of one of the three realms (earth, water and sky), jaguar, anaconda, harpy eagle, or into other animals, in order to perform certain tasks or to experience the world through them, a transformation of identity the Cashinahua referred to as a “change of skin”, a symbolic death (Lagrou 2000:31). This is a radical epistemological possibility difficult to imagine without direct experience. If true, it would mean alternative consciousness and transpersonal perception of whatever is out there, of the “real”.

Contemporary members of Brazilian religious organizations that use ayahuasca as a sacrament exhibit similar ideas. Among members of the UDV (União do Vegetal), one of these organizations, the central doctrine is embedded in certain Histórias, stories or myths, which are recited (not written down) during rituals, the memorization of which would determine the advancement in the organizational hierarchy. I participated in some rituals hearing several times the main central myth, the História da Huasca, in fact a variation of a myth of origin found among indigenous groups and among mestizo practitioners by which the origin of the two plants involved in the preparation comes from the bones and blood (or simply from the grave) of human beings. I was struck at how vividly the story unfolds in the mind while under the effect of the brew, how easily it would be to believe the myth to be true. Ayahuasca may in fact reinforce any religious beliefs, hence it’s potential for being adopted by other religious organizations and for facilitating syncretism. Mestizo shamanism in Peru is the result of the syncretism of popular Catholicism, Amazonian and Andean ideas (as well as some European esoteric elements). Furuya (1994) has pointed out the gradual umbandization (from umbanda, an Afro-Brazilian religion) of CEFLURIS, the largest of the Brazilian religious organizations that use ayahuasca under the name Santo Daime. Afro-Brazilian ideas are even more evident among members of Barquinha, an organization I studied carefully (Luna 1995). They have the concept of “incorporation”, different from “possession” in that the person remains conscious of his normal self. Members are believed to be able to incorporate four types of spirits: pretos velhos (old and wise black slaves), caboclos (the spirits of Indians), erés (the spirits of children), and encantados (princes or princesses “enchanted” or transformed into certain animals). This is close to the Amazonian idea of transformation. Once while harvesting the vine in the forest with a group from Barquinha, one of the men told me the story about one of the members that once was gripped by high anxiety while harvesting the vine up about twenty meters above the ground. He solved the problem by “incorporating” the spirit of a preto velho, a black slave, and descending easily to the ground. This suggests that accessing such states of consciousness may have had an evolutionary advantage.

Supernatural Entities

Shamanism, which implies altered states of consciousness and the activation of what seems as common archetypes beyond ethnic and cultural differences, may have a role, as Winkelman suggests (2010) in the emergence of modern humans. This may have its roots back in ancient primate ritual heritage from our evolutionary past. Winkelman attempts “to understand the original manifestation of shamanism and the diversity of manifestations of shamanistic phenomena produced by social influences on our innate potential for ritual, alterations of consciousness, and endogenous healing responses.”

Contact with supernatural entities of some sort is documented since Upper Paleolithic time, the so-called therianthropes, part human and part animals, found in rock art of all continents (Hancock 2003:69-93). Lewis-Williams (2005:10) explores the possibility that people from that period “harnessed what we call altered states of consciousness to fashion their society and that they used imagery as a means of establishing and defining social relationships”. The same author summarizes thus one of the chapters in his extraordinary research on Upper Paleolithic Art: “… most researchers have consistently ignored the full complexity of human consciousness and have concentrated on only one slice of it and made that slice the defining characteristic of what it is to be an anatomically and cognitively fully modern human being. Here I examine interaction of mental activity and social context: how, I ask, notions about human experience that are shared by a community impinge on the mental activity of individuals and how does socially controlled access to certain mental states become a foundation for social discrimination?”

When I was doing fieldwork among the mestizo riverian population of the Peruvian Amazon I was marveled as what seems to me full sincerity when for example a fisherman described the mermaids he saw once in the river, or when another man vividly told me of the apparition at night of a frightening huge water snake, the Yakumama. Mermaids, dolphins turning into human beings in order to seduce, bird spirits announcing a death in the family, are all to be expected given the shared notions about human experience of that society. Actual apparitions are usually extraordinary events, often connected with altered states of consciousness, the same way that UFO apparitions often are (see Vallee 1969, Hancock 2005). Culture has been, no doubt, a powerful influence in the way we perceive the world and ourselves. It is well known that anthropologists sometimes are afflicted by the so-called ethno-specific illnesses of the human groups they study. At the same time this would also explain why Westerners (except children) seldom see fairies. They are said to live in the forests. Most westerners live in cities, far from nature, and their notions of reality do not accept this kind of belief beyond a certain age. I read fairy tales to my mother when in her deathbed, and I know of psychologists who read those stories to very old people. The results are often simply extraordinary, as if we would in this way connect with something deep inside us with which we were in touch as children.

A Shipibo woman painting a pot with a visual representation of a medicine song. Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

New Information

A Shipibo girl wearing clothing display the visual representation of a medicine song. Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

There is no doubt that experiences with ayahuasca and other psychointegrator (a term coined by Michael Winkelman) plants and substances bring forth not only ecstatic but sometimes terrorific emotions. Information may also come from long forgotten or repressed memories. New information may come from such channels as de-familiarization, when everything is seen as new, most eloquently expressed by Huxley (1954) in his experiments with mescaline: “I was seeing what Adam had seen on the morning of his creation –the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence”. This is something I have often experienced, “discovering” new qualities in what was familiar, objects, plants, or human beings. When anthropologists go to the field, their first notes are extremely valuable, they see what is new in the societies and in the environment more clearly. As time goes by, what was strange becomes familiar, and therefore nearly invisible. To have the chance of seeing all once more like “in the beginning” (in mythical times) is a precious gift.

When asked about the origin of their body painting, their art, or other products of their culture, indigenous Amazonian groups often refer to sacred plants. “We see this in the visions.” “These are songs we learn from the plant spirits”. “Ayahuasca taught us the right way of living”. Michael E. Brown reports that among the Aguaruna of the Alto Río Mayo, in Peru, “men continue to recognize the important role that the visions obtained in their youth had in promoting their moral education and physical well-being, and in helping them make the transition to the responsibilities of adult life (Brown 1985:59). According to Lagrou (2000:31) “The cosmic snake Yube has mastered all possible appearances of form, color and design that can be perceived by human eyes. All the phenomena of this world are said to be inscribed in the designs of its skin and can be visualized through the (metaphoric) ingestion of his blood (nawa himi) or his urine (dunuc isun), which are the names of ayahuasca in ritual songs.” Among members of the Brazilian religious organizations, the songs sang during the rituals called hymns, by those organizations that call the sacrament Santo Daime, or chamadas by members of the UDV (União do Vegetal) and dissident groups, are said to have been “receive” from the astral plane, not composed by the founders or their disciples.

Altered States of Consciousness

Consciousness in general was until recently almost a taboo in academic circles. Roger Penrose (1994:8) states, “a scientific world-view which does not profoundly come to terms with the problem of conscious minds can have no serious pretensions of completeness. Consciousness is part of our universe, so any physical theory which makes no proper place for it falls fundamentally short of providing a genuine description of the world.” Western rational thinking, as pointed out by Frecska (2005), marginalizes or even pathologizes ASCs (altered states of consciousness). It considers them deviant states, unable to differentiate between disintegrative and integrative forms, and cultivates only the basic state of consciousness. It is unfortunate that the theme of ASCs is still anathema in most learning centers, even more so in therapeutic practice.

In a much-quoted paragraph, William James (1929:378-9) affirms:

“Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential form of consciousness entirely different. We may go through life without suspecting their existence; but apply the requisite stimulus and at a touch they are there in all their completeness, definite types of mentality that probably somewhere have their field of application and adaptation. No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded“. [italics mine].

The belief in spirits is nearly universal across ages. Shall we just dismiss, in the name of advanced rational thinking, the existence of other intelligent realms right here under our noses, only were we able to attune ourselves to these other realities? Roberts (2006) proposes the idea that that our minds function in many mindbody states. Consequently he rejects what he calls the “singlestate fallacy”: the erroneous assumption that all worthwhile thinking, behaving, and emotions occur only in our ordinary, awake mindbody state. Could it be then that there are mental state-bound realities, only manifested under appropriate circumstances? Traditional societies usually consider the cosmos as multi-layered, normally depicted by anthropologists as worlds above and below middle plain, this reality. Could it also be conceived as multidimensional from within, depending on the state of consciousness? Is not this perhaps the reason why ideas, events and imagery during our dreams (as well as often in the hypnagogic state previous to falling asleep) lose all their meaning immediately after waking, even though apparently our other self, the one in the dream, found no contradiction? Dreams and visions are equated in many cultures. Perhaps visions are a form of conscious dreams. According to Winkelman (2010) the physiological properties of ASC (altered states of consciousness) indicate that the visionary experiences are produced by the information capacities of the lower brain systems, and tap into the dream capacity, an ancient mammalian adaptation for integrating information in the pre-language symbolic capacity represented in the visual system

Neurons alone aren’t sufficiently complex to explain all brain phenomena and provide a computational model for thought. Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff (Penrose 1996) propose that consciousness emerges from biophysical processes acting at the subcellular level involving cytoskeletal structures. Consciousness is attributed to quantum computation in cytoskeletal proteins organized into a network of microtubules within the brain’s neurons. Ede Frecska (2005) proposes the existence of a dual foundation of knowledge. The first one would be the ordinary, perceptual-cognitive-symbolic, which is neuroaxonally based, is electrochemical (based on local effects), and relies on sensory perception, cognitive processing, and symbolic (visual, verbal, logical) language. It performs modeling, with an implicit split subject-object: it peaks in Western scientific thinking. The second one is the direct-intuitive-non local, its medium being a subneural network, such as the microtubular network, which connects the whole body, from head to toe, and based on nonlocal correlations, so small (measured in nanometers) that they are close to quantum physical measures. The cytoskeletal matrix, with 10,000,000 more units than neurons and may be immense enough to contain holographic information about the whole universe via non-local interaction. It is ineffable, experienced directly, without subject-object split, perhaps the realm from where shamans and mystics, the masters of nonlocality, after rigorous training and symbolic death, get their information and powers when in altered states of consciousness. This direct-intuitive-non local knowledge is perhaps “The Forgotten Knowledge” in western civilization, deemed nonexistent by academic Western science.

Mind and matter

Among some indigenous groups of the Amazon there is the idea that people take ayahuasca not “to see the future”, but “to create the future”. Brown (1985:60), who worked among the Aguaruna of Peru writes: “The future exists as a set of possibilities that are given shape by the effort to bring them into consciousness within the visionary experience.” Rafael Karsten, who worked among the Shuar of Ecuador, writes that in the victory feast, celebrating the acquisition by a warrior of a new arutam spirit by slaying an enemy, both men and women, even half-grown children, take part: all “who want to dream” being allowed to drink natéma (ayahuasca). The drinking has a ceremonial character throughout. During the victory feast celebration, half a litre of natéma was drunk by each person three times followed by vomiting. The participants did not eat or drink before the ceremony nor after they had slept and dreamed. After the ceremony the dreamers left the house and remained in shelters in the forest where they slept until the afternoon. After they woke up they took a bath in the river and returned to the house where they told the older Indians what kind of dreams and visions they’d had. The object of the drinking of natéma at the victory feast was to dream of the house of the slayer and his closest relatives: “surrounded by large and flourishing plantations of manioc and bananas, they see his domestic animals, his swine and his hens, numerous and fat, etc. At the same time the persons who have drunk the sacred drink will be benefited themselves, being purified from impure and disease-bringing matter, and gain strength and ability in their respective work and occupations.” (Karsten 1935:345).

Don Emilio with his chakapa. Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

Fericgla (2000), who worked much later among the Shuar reports that when they take ayahuasca and have visions referring to their lives, this is because what they see is either happening to them, or is about to happen. If they see something negative to happen in the future, they take the brew again and try to correct it. If they are not able to do so, and they again see the same thing, they look for a shaman stronger than them in order to be able to change what would happen. In other words, they have the belief that the visions influence reality.

I have witnessed extraordinary synchronicities in this respect happening to contemporary westerners. It is as if having a vision had enough power for the universe to conspire towards its completion. Perhaps mind and matter are two apparently contradictory manifestations –like the wave and particle properties of light- of an underlying ultimate reality. Perhaps consciousness is an essential part of reality. It is urgent to have a deep understanding of this paradigm in a world of increasing environmental degradation, alienation from the natural world, and consequently prone to violence and/or depression. Whatever may reconnect us with our past, with nature, and with inner self is of vital importance for our own survival.

Shamanism is ultimately about healing in the highest sense, a reintegration of all levels of existence. Ede Frecska (2008:146-8) sugests to extend the biopsychosocial paradigm in contemporary medicine proposed by George Engel (1997), including also the spiritual dimension: therapy sui generis is reintegration in toto on biological, mental, social and spiritual levels, the identification with higher realms of reality, with the psyche, with the community, and at the end with an entity above community (i.e., environment, nature, Universe, Mother Earth, etc. depending on culturally determined worldviews). A process contrary to what has happened to modern humanity who lost first the connection with any kind of supernatural world, then got alienated from nature and from his/her community, including the extended family, being reduced to an often depressed individual devoid of their dreams and creativity. A concept of reality restricted to the measurable material world is certainly impoverishing.

By way of conclusion

It is not at all strange that plants with the properties of altering the mind have been considered sacred by traditional cultures. It is now forty years since my first encounter with such a powerful medicine. I have witnessed and participated in hundreds of sessions in different settings, and I have been in touch in one way or another with most of the people who have been doing research on the subject. The most important questions have not been answered. What is the nature of the worlds and the entities one may encounter in such experiences? What is their level of reality? Are they simply “creatures of imagination”, as proposed by Reichel-Dolmatoff 1975:5)? Do they have any kind of reality outside our own experience? Are certain plants really intelligent, and able to communicate with us through real “communion” (more convincing than the Catholic eucharist)? Are the supernatural powers residing in these plants “organic chemical constituents that allow mortal man to communicate through visual, auditory and other hallucinations with the spirit world that controls every aspect of man’s earthly existence”? (Schultes 1975). Is the brain more a receptor that the originator of all experience? Are we really able to communicate with normally unseen intelligences, perhaps in other dimensions? Are spirits real? Is there a multidimensional ecology of beings? What is the relationship between mind and healing? What about those very common motifs, the serpents for example? Are they part of our mind, and therefore universal?

Under the effects of ayahuasca and other psychointegrators the mind seems to open to higher, more comprehensive dimensions. One is confronted in a very real and profound way with the mystery of existence, of life and death and the great enigma of the relationship between mind and reality. Few people are left indifferent to such experiences, if done in a respectful, controlled setting and under the guidance of an experienced facilitator.

I would like to present here, as way of illustration, two accounts of recent experiences I had with ayahuasca:

“I see a strange floating irregular nearly transparent bubble with alien organs. I cannot make sense of it. It comes towards me slowly from the left. I let it happen. It stops in front of me. I enter it with my intention, look at it from inside with total clarity. I go through it and enter a world of threatening beings in the shape of brownish intricate surfaces with protruding tentacles that go for my forehead. I hum and lift my arms protecting it. From the right, almost out of my visual field, another attack. I search for my rattle with eyes closed. To open them would mean defeat. I rattle, blow, hum, they seem unaffected by what I do and persist in their attack. In front of me I have the perfect perception of three-dimensional space. Tall shapeless beings, perhaps five of them, occupy the space that expands in front of my closed eyes. I think of the water from the Sangoma Valley, in South Africa, that was brought to the house by a friend. My wife had used it on me on a previous occasion in which I was attacked, with nearly instant results. I called Rodolfo, a friend, to bring the bottle that is with my wife. Almost immediately after my request there is a change in the visions. There is light to my left; the creatures all seem to look towards the light, pointing at something to come. There is the feeling of reverence in the strange creatures of this world. Is it due to the bottle that is coming? The bottle comes to my hands. I continue with my eyes closed. Open the cork, moisten my fingers, there is now color, flowers spring out, movement towards the sacred water, almost formless beings rushing towards the moisture that crossed from this reality to the other world. Then come the gifts, like other times, small objects, perhaps some sort of jewelry, nothing I can fully recognize as anything concrete corresponding to my world. The “beings” rush towards me, appearing in several irregular layers. I am in a more familiar territory. I have seen this many times before. I am less interested and begin to pay attention to the exterior world. I open my eyes, still seeing forms in the darkness. I am in both worlds, but more here then there. Everything is all right. I close again my eyes. I am again in a world that seems to be made of a light brown continuous material, almost like a kind of plastic. I have the feeling of intelligent presence. There seems to be some sort of technology. I think: “How could I keep this channel open, how could I always get in touch with “them”, as they seem to be ahead of my own time, they know what is coming (the principle of divination?)” The thought of an implant comes to mind but no; I do not wish anything inside me. I would not allow this to happen. I think of finding out about lottery numbers, and faintly I see some numbers appearing, but then reject the thought. This is cheap; this is not the way divination should be used, for personal gain. I am taken again by the thought of communication with this other reality. But then I come back, I have to take care of other people, choose the appropriate music for the moment. This reality is calling me now.”

On another occasion I had the following experience:

“Even with my eyes open I can see with almost dismay, once more, the black ants that were almost constant in my visions of some years ago. I close my eyes. There they are against a familiar background that seems to be underground. This has been my specialty, the visitation to subterranean worlds. I follow a row of ants going somewhere. I notice that without any effort my mind is following and I begin to zoom in. I see the ants bigger than any other time before. I continue zooming, or better, zooming is taking place almost without my volition. I get closer and closer to some sort of nodules that separate small areas from others within that, somehow lightly illuminated organic environment. I get excited. The zooming continues, and I am now seeing tiny organelles that become bigger as I continue getting closer and closer. I begin a narrow deep descent and then suddenly I am in a new place. It is lighter here. I can see everything with total clarity, sharper than everyday vision, mediated by the eye anatomy. Round, relatively bright, softly colored organisms covered by some sort of moving filaments approach me. The feeling is good. No danger here. I let them come very close, just a few centimeters from my inner eyes. More come behind. I let them also come to just what seems as millimeters from my eyes. I have no apprehension. They are curious. Again, presents. That is at least what I believe they are, as they come with all these objects that I cannot recognize as anything belonging to my world.

Then something is happening to my left. The attention of all those beings turn towards something coming from a seashore that I see upside down, as I am lying down. I understand I have to get up. I get to my knees, facing a sort of wall with sort of pre-Columbian anthropomorphic figures. I have the feeling that there is a ceremony, and it has to do with me. I am humbled by the situation. I tell them that I do not want anything for myself, but I would like to be able to help other people. More than asking to be a healer, I simply ask that healing may take place through me. Two figures, which I cannot distinguish well, are above me, carrying some sort of flags, or floating veils. I am struck by how when I move my head the whole perspective changes, as if I was really in a three dimensional space. If the visions were projected on my vision, the same image should follow my head. This is not the case. I can turn around. There is space all around me. “

In another experience I saw what riverian people of the Peruvian Amazon call the Sachamama, the great serpent of the jungle realm, powerful yet completely indifferent to my presence. In yet another I was riding the Yakumama, the great serpent of the water realm, down the bottom of a lake. There is often a certain consistency, familiar places that I visit again and again. I know more or less their geography. In some cases I get to places and see people who seem to go on their own business without paying any attention to me. “Just one more tourist”, they seem to think. In others I am welcomed, there is a rapport, they seem eager to meet me. How can I explain such experiences to myself in a satisfactory way?

First of all it is obvious that stories like this are universal. Experiences like these are deeply engrained in human physiology. They are part of us. I was simply experiencing aspects of reality in remarkably similar ways to those of human beings across time and space (Winkelman, personal communication). There are plenty of similar contemporary accounts of journeys to other realms with various (potentially) psychointegrator agents, including of course ayahuasca. The Internet is of course an extraordinary source in this respect. These extraordinary inner worlds, beyond normal imagination, seem to be too organized to be disparate constructions of the mind under the effect of alien alkaloids, just hallucinations without any value. The feeling is rather that these plants and substances are extraordinary tools for the study of consciousness. They may give access to infinite treasures of beauty and mystery, perhaps to the source from which all human construction finally emanates.

Don Jose Coral preparing tobacco before a curing session. Photo by Luis Eduardo Luna

This article was previously published as:
Ayahuasca and the Concept of Reality: Ethnographical, Theoretical and Experiential Considerations. In Ascott, Gangvik & Jahrman (eds) Making Reality Really Real. Consciousness Reframed. Trondheim: TEKS Publishing, 2010.


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Ayahuasca Reader

Encounters with the Amazon's Sacred Vine

Inner Paths to Outer Space

Journeys to Alien Worlds through Psychedelics and Other Spiritual Technologies

Luis Eduardo Luna was born in Florencia, in the Colombian Amazon region, in 1947. He studied Philosophy and Literature at the Complutense University of Madrid. He earned an interdisciplinary Masters degree while at the same time teaching Spanish and Latin American Literature at the Department of Romance Languages of Oslo University. In 1979 he moved to Finland where he is currently a Senior Lecturer at the Swedish School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland. In 1989 he received a Ph.D. from the Institute of Comparative Religion at Stockholm University, and in 2000 an honorary doctorate from St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York. A Guggenheim Fellow and Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, he is the author of Vegetalismo: Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon (1986), and with Pablo Amaringo of Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman (1991). He is co-editor with Steven F. White of Ayahuasca Reader: Encounters with the Amazon's Sacred Vine (2000). In 1986 he co-founded with Pablo Amaringo the Usko-Ayar Amazonian School of Painting of Pucallpa, Peru, and served as its Director of International Exhibitions until 1994. He was Professor of Anthropology at the Federal University of Santa Catarina, Brazil (1994-1998), has lectured about Amazonian shamanism and modified states of consciousness worldwide, and has curated exhibitions of visionary art in several countries.

Luna has over 30 years of experience with ayahuasca in various contexts: as an anthropologist with indigenous groups and among urban and rural mestizo ayahuasqueros in Peru and Colombia, with all the syncretic Brazilian religious organizations that use ayahuasca as a sacrament, and as a facilitator in specially designed workshops.

See his website at http://www.wasiwaska.org/