Are Spirits Real?

Sooner or later, everyone working with ayahuasca has to come to terms with this issue. Who, or what, are those beings we’re seeing in ceremony? What do ayahuasqueros mean when they talk about spirits; the spirit of ayahuasca, for example, or los genios of the plants? What does Santo Daime mean when it speaks of spirit possession, or of hymns transmitted by spirits? Are spirits ‘real,’ in the sense of independently existing entities—or are they the ephemeral projections of our own minds?

How we answer these questions impacts our work with ayahuasca, influencing how we navigate within ceremony and the extent to which we employ protection. Opening the door to the spirit world reveals many possibilities, not all of them benign. Brujeria, sorcery, is a well-known phenomenon in Amazonian plant medicine. As a friend put it, “You may not believe in spirits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe in you.”

Are spirits real? The question itself implies a particular worldview, with ‘reality’ referring to the tangible, sensory 3-D experiences we share with everyone else. (At least, we assume we share it.)

Although the entities we encounter through ayahuasca can be seen, heard, sensed, and sometimes even smelled, they don’t have tangible manifestation. Ephemeral and shape-shifting, they lack the coherence we associate with physical reality. And the modern world takes material existence as ultimate proof. In addition, ayahuasca visions are not generally correlatable with the experience of others: they exist within an individual’s unique reality, and are therefore not objectively provable.

I’ve encountered a similar discussion within Tibetan Buddhist circles around the Six Realms of Existence as depicted in the Wheel of Life. Birth and rebirth can take place as a god, animal, hell being, human, demi-god or hungry ghost, as influenced by karma. Do these realms manifest in physical reality? Or are they allegorical, appearing as temporary states on this planet, or as states of mind within an individual?

I believe it was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche who said something like: “Sure, you can view places like Bosnia or Rwanda as Hell Realms. But it would be a mistake to think that these are the only ones that exist.” In other words, don’t use psychological interpretations to minimize the larger truth.

Anyway. In either case here, be it Buddhist or Amazonian, how do we balance the contemporary scientific-materialist worldview with personal experiences of a potentially deeper nature? How do we reconcile the modern paradigm with the transcendent understandings ayahuasca can instigate? To hold both worlds in balance, respecting each reality while clinging to neither, is an act of equanimity worthy of a meditation master. It takes a spacious view to embrace unique and apparently conflicting possibilities without getting lost in contradiction.

Coming back to the spirits seen with ayahuasca—whether they appear as buzzing insects, doctorcitos, star beings, Mother, Snake or Jaguar—let’s look at the continuum of possibilities that lies before us, from material to spiritual:

  1. We can define these beings as hallucinations, “the perception of something not present” triggered by ingesting a chemical substance. The implication that an hallucination is imaginary and thus not real is an unsatisfactory solution to which no ayahuasca drinker I know subscribes. The experiences are too authentic, too meaningful, to dismiss in this fashion.
  1. We can view spirits through a psychological lens, as aspects of our personality; either sub-personalities, or simply our wishes, dreams, hopes and fears—the contents of our sub/unconscious projected out onto the glorious inner screen of our vision. Our inner worlds are rife with possibilities.
  1. We can treat spirits as externalized manifestations of the archetypes that all humans share at the collective level: Healer, for example, or Mother, or Star Beings. Carl Jung’s understanding of archetypes, developed through extensive personal work, was that such autonomous beings “have a life of their own.”
  1. We can expand our worldview to accept spirits as intelligent, independently existing beings who only become visible to us through certain states of consciousness. It’s not uncommon for people to see plant teachers, doctorcitos and healing spirits operating during ceremony. This is the traditional perspective of the vegatalistos, curanderos, and ayahuasqueros, both indigenous and mestizo, who have worked with ayahuasca and teacher plants for centuries. Personally, I’m inclined to respect their reports, which are remarkably consistent across cultural and linguistic divides.
  1. We can do a mix-and-match of the above, choosing whatever fits personally or in a particular situation. Different cultures perceive and describe these events differently. Spirits as metaphor, spirit as symbol; as psychological or chemical or real—a great deal has to do with the way we hold and balance internal and external realities. And when we’re in the realm of subjective vs. objective realities, we should acknowledge the degree to which quantum physics has blown a hole in these dichotomies.
  1. Last and perhaps wisest, we can leave things as a Mystery. The urge to define reality, to pin things down to a single definition, is very much a left-brain endeavor, one perhaps flawed from the very beginning. As all psychedelics show us, multiple realities can and do exist.

As César Calvo writes in his masterful Amazonian novel The Three Halves of Ino Moxo: “. . . things are not only truly real, or only mere illusions. There are many categories in between, where things exist: many categories of the real, simultaneously and in different times.” He goes on:

. . . the light of the oni xuma [ayahuasca] is black. It doesn’t explain. It doesn’t reveal. Instead of uncovering mysteries, it respects them. It makes them more and more mysterious, more fertile and prodigal. Oni xuma irrigates the unknown territory: that is its way of shedding light.

I love this image, the ‘black light’ of ayahuasca that fertilizes the mystery rather than ripping it apart. Trying to understand reality exclusively with the analytical mind is a sad and limited enterprise.

One of the many gifts that ayahuasca brings is how it opens us to new possibilities. Freed of mental calcifications, we are catapulted into realms vaster and more strange than we’ve seen before. Returning, we’re not the same. We know there is more; that this material plane is “one of the several masks of the same reality,” as Calvo has it; that life is far more mysterious than we ever dared imagine.

14 comments… add one
  • Honk May 2, 2018, 8:08 pm

    Nice overview/perspective — full of insight. Thanks.

  • Enrico Jan 24, 2019, 2:58 pm

    But you still dont answer,they are real or they are just projection of our mind

    • Kerry Moran Jan 24, 2019, 9:09 pm

      This is true that I don’t give a simple answer. (I don’t think it’s a simple question!). I discuss a number of possible ways to view the question. And as I said in the beginning, ultimately I think we each need to come to terms with this subject, find the answers that work for us, based on our own experience. And be open to changing our minds all along the way.

      • Sylas Apr 10, 2019, 12:30 am

        Great article and great reply completely congruent with the ‘black light’.

      • Paul Gardner Jan 3, 2023, 5:27 pm

        They are real and so is possession trust me I know from experience they are real!

  • Vishal mann Feb 20, 2020, 3:06 pm

    “The urge to define reality, to pin things down to a single definition, is very much a left-brain endeavor, one perhaps flawed from the very beginning.”
    My current intention is to see through & drop this endeavor I have.
    I am always trying to explain things & ceremonial experiences, as if i can logically explain all this to the world, kind of show “I have cracked it”. Unstoppable loop the ego is on!

    • Kerry Moran Feb 20, 2020, 9:09 pm

      It’s an amusing and sometimes exhausting addiction; I have it too. As my Tibetan teacher would say, recognise and relax the mind, over and over again…

  • Allen Apr 17, 2020, 6:16 pm

    What do you think about exorcisms, dispossessions, that sort of thing? Even if a client or patient can’t join in a consensual reality about what the curandero is sending away, to the light or wherever, if the patient gets relief, is that a sort of evidence that these are simply actual, discarnate beings, or I suppose there are alternate explanations even there – since ceremonies are such rich experiences, and kind of multimodal because who knows what else the medicine, the curandero, and other participants are doing energetically, so the effect of a “ disposession” may be relatively hard to isolate from the effect of other types of support. And even if a dispossession experienced for a client in a ceremony seems to be paramount in that particular ceremony, significant relief experienced by the patient is a data point that could still have more than a direct, “materialist” (just the more subtle material of the discarnate fields) explanation: for example, the curandero did something to energetically soothe some sort of psychological or subtle body trauma for which the offending spirit had appeared as some kind of psychic or psychological metaphor. Another less common data point would be if a second person, perhaps another participant in the ceremony, were to see the same sort of offending spirit.

    There’s something like this in the field of past life regressions that I know about – where people have done regressions, and then gone and verified the data they received. That’s not the same as spirits or demons or discarnate beings though.

    I really resonate to your solution of living with indeterminacy, accepting that there are more than one possibility. To live with uncertainty, to resist the temptation to fill in unknown areas with dogma for the reassuring pretense of control – that requires unrelenting intellectual rigor, courage and honesty. That’s something I work on myself, often finding myself sloppy, filling in the blanks, assuming, because it’s simple, or I’m feeling lazy or fed up. I admire that in your blog – you always seem to stick to the facts, and then to intelligently speculate about what they may add up to, but only go as far as reason and experience allow. A neat trick – super refreshing to me, that you can do that with material of this complexity and subtly (and which interests me). Speaking of metaphors, food for my soul 😉

    • Kerry Moran Apr 18, 2020, 11:51 am

      Hi Allen, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Entities, trauma, complexes, DNA, past lives . . . many different ways to define what happens; I do hold a particular respect for what experienced ayahuaqueros see and say; they are the professionals in this field! And in integration work, I go for whatever seems to makes the most sense to the individual. We all get to choose how we interpret our reality, in ceremony and out—and in that process, we create it.
      As a psychotherapist, a big element of ‘fact’ for me is one’s unique personal experience—statistically unprove-able, and yet so important in working with psyche and plant medicine.
      Personally, I’ve found years of Buddhist study and practice serves me well in navigating through ayahuasca realms! The openness to different levels of reality, and the ability to accept each on its own terms without being limited to any particular one. I am grateful. Glad it adds up to soul food for you.

  • Shannon Nov 27, 2020, 4:36 pm

    This is a wonderful explanation (quite brilliant and thorough) and really just the tip of the iceberg. I’m thinking you have so much more to say and I would love you to expound upon “we should acknowledge the degree to which quantum physics has blown a hole in these dichotomies.” I’m studying consciousness and Unified Field (Quantum Physics) is always at the back of my mind. I’d love to hear your take…

    • Kerry Moran Nov 27, 2020, 5:42 pm

      Hi Shannon, Tip of the iceberg indeed! If you really pay attention to quantum physics, it will completely deconstruct your old notions of reality—but I’ve deconstructed via other pathways, so not sure I am an expert in this regard. Love to hear what you have to say on the subject—feel free to share your thoughts here!

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