Ancient Medicine in a Modern World: How Ayahuasca Can Heal the Plague of Depression and Anxiety

Image courtesy of the Temple of the Way of Light
Image courtesy of the Temple of the Way of Light

One can’t help but wonder—could the rise in people suffering from anxiety-related mental disorders be helped by the increased popularity of ayahuasca? While the industrialized world has delivered ever-increasing comfort, safety, and useful technology, it has also left a shadowy legacy of stress, isolation, and disconnection from nature and community. With more people than ever seeking treatment for moderate to debilitating anxiety, it is no wonder that ayahuasca, a traditional plant medicine renowned for psychospiritual healing, is become more and more popular in the Western world, causing leading scientists and mental health experts to begin taking serious notice. But can science fully understand this ancient psychedelic plant medicine and healing tradition?

To gain insight into these questions, we spoke with Matthew Watherston, founder of the Temple of the Way of Light which provides traditional ayahuasca healing ceremonies in Peru. As a westerner who has been working with traditional Shipibo healers and hosting cutting edge research by the international organization ICEERS, he is uniquely poised to offer an inside perspective on where scientific understanding and ancient tradition meet and how each of these paradigms approaches mental health and postmodern malaise.

Thank you again for speaking with us, Matthew. More and more studies are talking about the benefits of ayahuasca and other psychedelics. You’ve been running the Temple of the Way of Light for about 10 years now; how do you see this new flood of scientific research and interest in entheogens? Has it affected the kinds of people who come to the Temple for healing?

I think that research to measure the efficacy of ayahuasca healing is very necessary, although with an understanding that the Western scientific lens can never fully understand the magic and mystery of ayahuasca or how plant spirit healing functions at an energetic and spiritual level. However, having facilitated deep healing for thousands of people at the Temple over the past nine years, it has been in some ways frustrating that the evidence of the profound results that we regularly witness remains purely anecdotal.

Before I share more thoughts on the potential of scientific studies about ayahuasca, I would like to be clear that, from my perspective, ayahuasca is much more than simply a psycho-pharmaceutical with physical properties that after ingestion result in psychological and physiological reactions. It is a sentient, intelligent plant spirit, doctor, and teacher that operates primarily on energetic, psychic, and spiritual levels. I also suspect that the medicine works on sub-molecular levels that western science does not yet have the tools to measure.

I would also like to highlight that, from my point of view, it is important for us to respect the traditions and ancient healing technologies that are held by the indigenous record-keepers of the medicine. They are the real masters of the medicine, and there is much we can learn from them. We need to honor indigenous traditions and not dismiss their ways of working with ayahuasca as hocus-pocus and magical nonsense, as is often seen within Western academic, scientific, and medical communities.

As Dennis McKenna Ph.D. stated in a recent interview in the Guardian newspaper, “[Ayahuasca is] the conduit to a body of profoundly ancient genetic and evolutionary wisdom that has long abided in the cosmologies of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon who have guarded and protected this knowledge for millennia, who learned long ago that the human role is not to be the master of nature, but its stewards. Our destiny, if we are to survive, is to nurture nature and to learn from it how to nurture ourselves and our fellow beings. This is the lesson that we can learn from ayahuasca, if only we pay attention.”

Underpinning the Temple’s work is our vision for the incredible mastery of indigenous healers to be respected, legitimized, and honored in the modern world. We aim to cultivate a richer understanding in the West of the Shipibo system of shamanic healthcare and substantiate the efficacy of their ethno-medical traditions. Indigenous healers have a system of sacred science that has evolved over thousands of years, coming from a profound relationship with and understanding of medicinal plants. Western science, on the other hand, is only really beginning to initiate its journey of discovery, one that comes from a completely different perspective.

Imagine a time traveler with a laptop who jumps back to 33,000 BC and demonstrates 21st-century games, movies, and music to the people living at that time. The time traveler and the laptop would almost certainly be viewed with much fear and consternation. People certainly would have no idea how pictures and sound were being shown to them on the screen. They would not understand the inner workings of the laptop and would likely run away as fast as they could. When Western science attempts to understand ayahuasca healing, it can be argued that scientists are similarly unable to comprehend the energetic and spiritual aspects of the medicine, as these lie outside of their current paradigm. The issue is that Western science often operates with a level of blindness that blocks its ability to see beyond its limited perspectives, technologies, and systems of measurement.

Do you think that ayahuasca can ever be fully deconstructed and understood scientifically?

The measureless complexities and intricacies of genuine ayahuasca healing can never be fully analyzed or understood by Western science. My hope is that, as this flood of research to investigate ayahuasca healing continues, researchers will be able to put aside Cartesian doubts and humbly open to the possibility that ayahuasca is primarily functioning on spiritual and energetic levels that cannot be measured by Western science.

A great example of scientific inquiry into psychedelics can be found in the research carried by the research psychiatrist Rick Strassman, M.D on DMT, the ‘spirit molecule’ contained within ayahuasca. After having administered several hundred doses of DMT to 60 volunteers between 1990 and 1995, he conceded that “the bio-medical model, when it is limited to [a] purely academic/analytic mode, severely limits the most fruitful applications of psychedelics.” His DMT experiments shone a whole new light on unexplained phenomena such as out-of-body states, glimpses into other dimensions, and reports of mystical experiences. The results of the study lead him to the conclusion that “the DMT world was revealed, not generated.”

Ethnobotanicals such as ayahuasca have considerable potential for treating a wide range of conditions, from depression to stress disorders to substance abuse. Clinical research is also starting to shed light on the complex neuropsychological effects of these plants and the implications for improved cognitive function and integrative thinking that can help people deal with daily life issues in more effective and creative ways.

Science is a powerful tool to break through the moralistic propaganda that stigmatizes certain practices as ‘irresponsible drug use’ that have been an integral part of the well-being and survival of indigenous communities of the Amazon basin for centuries. Science serves balanced educational outreach about potential risks and benefits of traditional healing practices and helps shed light on how we can further reduce those risks and maximize those benefits.

Recent scientific breakthroughs have broadened our understanding of medicinal plants, such as ayahuasca, and their psychological and neurological effects on the human psyche. This research has complemented the vast ethnobotanical knowledge of the indigenous communities that have been working with these plants since antiquity and has provided validation for the practices these communities have developed around these plant species.

Shamanic healing is part of the cultural heritage of every nation of our planet, although it has been largely lost in modern society due to the ruthless suppression by organized religion in the Middle Ages. The religious reasons for the persecution of traditional healers are groundless when one appreciates that shamanism is a method, not a religion, and thus does not conflict with any religious tradition. The widespread eradication of traditional healing practices in Europe, leading into the emergence of the Renaissance and the birth of modern medicine, has left 21st-century healthcare bereft of any real understanding that, at our core, we are formed of energy. In order to fully understand the health of our species and to have a healthcare system that can adequately promote our well-being, we need to recognize the full composition of our being, which extends beyond the physical into the non-physical.

Can you share some insights on how this ancient “technology” of energetic healing works according to the traditional perspective?

Ayahuasca and traditional medicine works on all levels of our system, starting energetically and spiritually and leading into emotional, psychological, and physical levels. Amazonian indigenous traditions understand that plants, like humans, have a non-physical, spiritual aspect. They work with the spirits of the medicinal trees and plants of the Amazon, including ayahuasca. Ayahuasca gets a lot of attention in modern media, but it’s seldom mentioned that healers see ayahuasca simply as one medicine (composed of two plants) within a myriad of other plant spirits. Only by working with many plant and tree spirits in ceremony—not just ayahuasca—are they able to carry out deep and lasting healing. Research studies will, of course, not be able to measure this fact and will therefore never truly be able to understand how traditional ayahuasca healing really functions.

By expanding their consciousness and operating from within a non-physical realm—the spirit world or what is often referred to as the astral dimension in the West—healers encounter and communicate with the spirits of the plants that act as doctors and teachers. It is these spirit doctors, including the spirit of ayahuasca, that are truly carrying the healing process. At the most basic level, Amazonian healers are conduits to these doctor spirits that are able to clear and cleanse negative energies, return power to people who have lost theirs due to difficult life experiences, and restore the fabric of one’s soul.

Traditionally Shipibo healers (onánya) use ayahuasca as a diagnostic tool enabling them to see the energetic blockages and imbalances that appear as broken and dissonant patterns throughout the system of the patient. Indigenous healers use ayahuasca as a natural equivalent to an MRI that enables them to scan the system of the patient. The scan identifies psychic poisons and dense energies that are seen as dark spots inside the ill person. If the healing is successful, the negative energies are absorbed by ayahuasca and then expelled through the purge. Disharmonious energetic patterns are straightened and transformed, restoring balance to the energetic field.

The key to the success of ceremonial healing depends on the mastery of the healer who is ‘being sung to’ by the plants and transmitting ikaros—the songs of the plants—that for Shipibo healers are the principle healing tools of the ceremony. The ikaros are vibrational frequencies that emanate from the medicinal plants. The healers see the ‘notes’ of the ikaros in their visions as brilliantly colored designs—kené—that, through many years of arduous training, they learn to be able to channel through their vocal cords as songs. The quality and power of the ikaros and, crucially, how much they can penetrate the system of the patient, depends on the skill level of the healers and can vary significantly depending on their training, intentions, and motivation.

Shipibo healers will always state very clearly that the ikaros are the (vibrational) medicines that affect the healing in combination with ayahuasca. Without ikaros and the other core healing practices in ceremony, such as the soplado (or in Shipibo—xóonakin: a blessing with the breath using tobacco smoke, or perfume; and maxónakin: a blessing blown into the crown of the head) and chupar (oyokin in Shipibo: to suck energies), then deep healing reaching to energetic roots cannot take place. Ayahuasca would only then work on a more superficial level.

In addition to these main tools of curanderismo, Shipibo healers use a plethora of other healing technologies including many different types of vapor baths , smoke baths, floral baths (nashiti in Shipibo), purgatives, plant perfumes (commonly known in the Peruvian Amazon as pusangas or ráo ininti specifically in Shipibo), and plant remedies (ráo).

Do you think that these traditional healing practices and Western science have any overlap?

It is a complicated effort to bridge traditional medicine with Western science, as they are two entirely different paradigms. True healing is not about ‘curing’ but bringing the whole body (all levels) back into alignment. Healing, for the Shipibo, is ultimately a return to harmony and happiness, what they call benéshama. If negative energies are trapped within the human system, then cleansing these energies will eventually resolve psycho-emotional issues and even physical conditions, provided one is committed to the integration process.

Traditional medicine offers causal healing, focusing on the energetic root of the imbalance or disorder. From a traditional healer’s perspective, the ultimate cause of virtually all illness is found within the non-physical realms. They see the results of negative or traumatic life experiences manifesting as energetic blockages. It is these blockages that ayahuasca, directed by trained healers working with ikaros, then works to cleanse. It is not enough to simply suppress the effects of illness with medication on the physical plane and hope for the best. For true healing to occur, the energetic causes of the illness must be addressed.

Western medicine approaches healing from a symptomatic level, focusing on the physical. There is an increasing understanding in the West of the connection between mind and body, strongly indicating that if there is imbalance in one’s thoughts and emotions, this leads to physical issues. However, traditional medicine takes this many steps further by recognizing the energetic body and treating energetic imbalances as well as by working at a soul level.

Another aspect of the healing carried out by indigenous healers is working to restore the soul or spirit to wholeness. They understand that, as a result of severe trauma in one’s life, our spirit (káya in Shipibo) can become dislodged from the physical body. Aspects of the spirit are trapped at the time the trauma occurred. Onánya are able to return back to the traumatic event, clean the ‘inner wound,’ and restore the spirit back into the physical body.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder seems to be something that psychedelic therapy is particularly good at treating, with recent studies showing the efficacy of both MDMA and cannabis for PTSD treatment.

Although PTSD is a relatively recent terminology for the symptoms of acute trauma, the Shipibo have been treating this condition for hundreds of years. They recognize that PTSD comes from severe fright, which they call raté (or susto in Spanish, the common word used amongst healers in Peru). Severe fright is called ani ratéta and is always accompanied by raké (fear). If the energies that entered the system at the time of the trauma are not cleared, then the trauma will haunt the afflicted person for the rest of their life. The key to treating severe trauma is through understanding that the core issue is connected to the spirit. Treatment of issues with the spirit is, of course, not available or recognized in Western medicine.

Among indigenous people, issues with our spiritual body are regarded as the most serious diagnosis and the major cause of premature death and serious illness. The most common symptom of this ‘soul loss’ is depression. Although the term “soul loss” is not familiar to most Westerners, examples of it are often revealed in the way we communicate difficult experiences in day-to-day life: “He/she has lost the will to live” and “I have not been the same since.” Nearly everyone has a sense of having lost a ‘part’ of their ‘self’ at some point in life, yet modern society is not aware of these common issues that many people suffer from.

Common signs of these soul/spiritual issues are an inability to remember parts of one’s life, chronic inability to feel love or receive love from another, chronic emotional remoteness, chronic apathy or listlessness, chronic lack of initiative or enthusiasm, chronic lack of joy, chronic negativity, addictions, and chronic melancholy or despair. The narrow lens of scientific inquiry does not recognize or comprehend any of these energetic or spiritual aspects of the human system. It is, for example, not possible to scientifically measure how energies are cleansed or how fragmented aspects of our soul return to wholeness, but it is possible to study the ‘effect’ of this healing on physical, emotional, and psychological levels.

While some diseases can be attributed to external factors such as toxins, chemicals, and radiation, most disease has an energetic root. Western medicine, driven by a purely mechanical and reductive perspective, focuses solely on physical symptoms, leaving a vast chasm of missing knowledge about the full spectrum of human health. Since the dawn of time, indigenous healers across the planet have known that we are, in essence, energetic beings. Matter is epiphenomena of energy. I believe that the Western and traditional medical paradigms, when combined, will result in truly full-spectrum healthcare. The question is, how do we bridge these two paradigms?

Could this new wave of research into psychedelic therapy for treating mental illnesses provide that opportunity to bring these two paradigms together?

The most significant opportunity that I see is in looking to understand and treat the root cause of the modern black plague—depression and anxiety. It is clear that we are witnessing a global pandemic of psycho-emotional health issues. Nearly 20% of the population of the US is taking either anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication. Is pharmaceutical medication really helping, or, in the majority of cases, is it simply masking the issues? The statistics really speak for themselves:

The World Health Organization has estimated that 350 million people worldwide suffer from some form of mental disorder or brain condition, and that by 2030 depression will be the most important health problem in first world countries.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18% of the population.

Anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion a year, almost one-third of the country’s $148 billion total mental health bill, according to “The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders,” a study commissioned by ADAA.

In the last 20 years, the rate of anti-depressant use in the U.S. among people 12 years of age and older has increased by almost 400%.

Beyond these statistics are the millions of people who suffer from unresolved emotional issues from childhood traumas, unhealthy relationships, social anxiety, disconnection, and general imbalance. Conventional approaches for treating these conditions have shown limited efficacy. Over-medicalization focused principally on symptoms and often plagued by side effects masks the complexity behind them and often provides little long-term relief or healing. Traditional psychotherapy is helpful but limited and can take many years. New strategies of intervention are required to get to the root cause of these recurring psycho-social problems.

What does the traditional model of healing say about treating these types of disorders?

Our understanding of the cause of these issues lies in unresolved trauma: both the accumulation of developmental traumas during childhood, and acute traumas such as abuse, serious accidents, and warfare. I would go as far to say that 100% of the guests we receive at the Temple are coming due to trauma within their system, whether they are conscious of it or not. So, at the core of our work, we are offering treatment for trauma through ‘spirit-assisted’ healing working with plant (spirit) based medicines.

Western healthcare is phenomenally advanced in treating external trauma yet practically devoid of any understanding of inner trauma, which it typically refers to as psychological. Trauma expands beyond the psychological level. It is the hidden inner traumas practically everyone carries that, if left to linger lurking within the energetic system, cause much of life’s suffering.

These traumas have both energetic and psycho-emotional components. Ayahuasca and traditional shamanic medicine addresses both by cleansing and clearing blocked, negative energy and by bringing self-limiting subconscious patterns to the surface to integrate. By becoming aware of patterns formed as a response to trauma, embracing the fears that we have developed in earlier life, and balancing our thoughts and emotions, we are then able to bring our system back into wholeness.

If we remain unconscious of our negative patterns, we are not fully in control of our lives, the decisions we make, or the dreams we would like to manifest. These hidden shadow energies and patterns haunting us from subconscious and energetic levels of our system are actually in control of everything!

With physical trauma, we see and experience obvious symptoms—blood, broken bones, physical pain. The symptoms of inner trauma are much more complex, although they can be reduced down to emotional pain. A good example of this is an analogy offered by Miles Sherts (author of Conscious Communication) [about] the dashboard of a car: if a warning light comes on, then the ‘inner’ technologies within the car are indicating that there is something to pay attention to. On minor levels, it could be the need to put more gas in the tank or refill the oil. If we ignore these warning signs, then we know that eventually the car will break down. We can’t put a plaster over a warning light and expect the problem to disappear! Our negative emotional charges are actually symptoms indicating that we have energetic imbalances and subconscious patterns that need to be addressed.

Conventional medicine’s lack of understanding and effective treatment of psycho-emotional issues is one of the driving factors behind why people are seeking ayahuasca. We have witnessed a significant shift over the years in the reasons why guests come to the Temple. When we first started operating, many guests were of the adventurous traveller type, thrill-seeking the ‘experience’ of ayahuasca.

Now we are seeing more and more people coming to the Temple who suffer from depression, anxiety, and overall disconnection from the world around them and are unable to find effective treatment in the West. More people in the mainstream are awakening to the fact that self-medication or psychiatric medications are often not the answer to chronic psycho-emotional issues. They are also recognizing that their well-being ultimately depends on their energetic and spiritual health.

We see this shift as a very positive movement towards re-legitimizing traditional medicines and the valuable role they can play in healing. Our intention from the very beginning at the Temple has been not to offer psychedelic excursions or casual tripping, but to be a plant medicine and shamanic healing center committed to facilitating lasting healing.

 

The Temple of the Way of Light is a pioneering effort that is conducting important psychedelic research and helping people interact with ayahuasca in a safe, meaningful, and ethical environment. It is exciting to witness ayahuasca bringing together Western science and traditional Amazonian culture in such profound ways. Psychedelic Times is deeply grateful to Matthew Watherson for taking the time to share his insights and knowledge about the multifaceted, powerful healing force that is ayahuasca.
 

Psychotherapists and other experts are harnessing the transcendent power of psychedelics to treat mood disorders, substance addiction, and much more. The staff at Psychedelic Times is here to provide guidance and support through the processes of psychedelic integration and recovery coaching. Contact us with your questions about psychedelic therapy―the journey starts today.

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Wesley Thoricatha
Wesley Thoricatha is a writer, visionary artist, permaculture designer, and committed advocate for psychedelic therapy as a means to a more meaningful and harmonious world.