Tourist or Pilgrim? Approaching Ayahuasca

Delphi. Eleusis. Kailas. Mecca. From ancient times, people have traveled to sacred places to be initiated into the mysteries. Power places like these connect humans with the Divine, bringing the earthly plane into alignment with higher worlds.

Now the initiatory substance is coming to us. In living rooms across North America and Europe, people are gathering for ayahuasca ceremonies. Underground, yes, as ayahuasca is illegal in most places. But this doesn’t stop the surge in interest, nor the need.

You don’t have to sit with a shaman to drink ayahuasca. You can, in fact, order the ingredients by mail, cook them in your kitchen and drink them in your back yard, although I do not recommend this course of action.

In some ways, the ease with which ayahuasca can be obtained can flatten the experience. When the only effort required is a phone call and a payment, it’s easier to be superficial about it (see this New Yorker article for a tragi-comic look at what happens when ayahuasca is met like this.)

This kind of approach treats ayahuasca as a substance rather than a spirit, a chemical remedy to ingest. This is spiritual materialism, and it manifests in many forms, be it self-centered narcissism, an obsession with self-improvement, or a misguided romanticization of indigenous culture that grasps at anything exotic. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche noted long ago: “The problem is that ego can convert anything to its own use … even spirituality.”

Even ayahuasca. For better or worse (probably worse), it’s become fashionable— “Hollywood’s Hip, Heavy Hallucinogen,” the Hollywood Reporter headlines it.

There’s another way to approach ayahuasca: through the path of pilgrimage. This doesn’t have to entail travel, although it could. Rather, the discipline, humbleness, and respect embodied in the pilgrim’s path can counteract the consumer mentality of ayahuasca tourism.

Real pilgrimage, like the arduous journey I wrote about in Kailas: On Pilgrimage to the Sacred Mountain of Tibet, demands a deepening of focus. It requires both careful attention to the path, and the surrender of any expectations you might carry regarding your destination. The true pilgrim relinquishes who he thinks he is, and all she thinks she knows. This process transforms ordinary travel into a sacred journey that in itself is a form of initiation.

Many people are drawn to ayahuasca for spiritual or metaphysical reasons. Many, myself included, come to South America on a pilgrimage of sorts, seeking to meet ayahuasca in its home territory. Journeying here is a gesture of respect, driven by the desire to give back, and by the intuition there’s deep meaning to encounter. And indeed, there is a whole lotta transformative depth in the ayahuasca-influenced Amazon: the intersecting traditions of indigenous peoples like the Shipibo, Shuar, and Ashaninka; the wisdom of mestizo curanderos and ayahuasqueros; the profound knowledge of the vegetalistos who heal through the plants, and the vast living, breathing intelligence of the Amazon rainforest itself.

Still, you don’t have to travel to Peru to be a pilgrim, just as not everyone who journeys here comes in that spirit. What is essential is your inner attitude, and this, along with your preparation, can be deep or shallow, whether you’re attending a ceremony in Iquitos or Indiana. Ayahuasca is not an inert substance. What you bring to it is part of the mix, the ‘set’ or mindset of psychedelia’s famous ‘set and setting’ that creates the terms of engagement.

It pays to develop your intentions in a heartfelt way, so that you come to meet ayahuasca with respect, openness, and the willingness to work. Clean yourself, inside and out. Be aware of what you’re ingesting in the days before, be it food (keep it simple, clean) or electronic imagery (best to release this well before the ceremony and give yourself some open quiet time). Dance or listen to music; take a walk in nature; meditate in a free and open way. Cultivate your ability to suspend judgment, to relax the grip of conceptual mind. Meditation practice is helpful here—not that you have to meditate your way through ceremony, but it’s a useful support to refer to at times, just like awareness of the breath. Above all, have the willing to trust, to surrender and let the medicine do its work.

Ultimately, pilgrimage is about the process, and it’s created by what you carry in your heart. You can be a pilgrim to the backyard teepee where a neighbor is hosting a ceremony, or an ayahuasca tourist scouring the jungle for the coolest ‘shaman’ to drink with. It all depends on the qualities you embody: these can include humility, willingness, openness, and groundedness, as I write in “5 Things to Bring to Ceremony.” A genuine pilgrimage is a transformative path, regardless of its destination.

Approaching ayahuasca
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