As the West’s love affair with ayahuasca continues to expand, many big questions remain unanswered. Despite all of our scientific progress, or perhaps because of it, we still do not fully understand how ayahuasca works in all its intricacies, nor do we even know how to properly study it. Even beyond understanding ayahuasca’s pharmacology and short and long term effects, there is also still an open question about how to best present ayahuasca to people, and what kind of role a shaman or psychotherapist should adopt to help people get the most out of the medicine.
Few people on the planet are as qualified to speak on these issues as Dennis McKenna. Dr. McKenna has been studying ayahuasca for over four decades as a scientist, psychonaut, and most recently, as an ayahuasca retreat facilitator through his organization Symbio Life Sciences. We caught up with Dennis recently to discuss his perspective on the best way to approach ayahuasca, and what the proper role is for the shaman or psychotherapist who utilizes it.
Thank you so much for speaking with us Dennis. Ayahuasca is becoming widely known for its therapeutic value but is somewhat challenging to study in a Western scientific context. I’m curious what your thoughts are on ayahuasca and clinical research.
Ayahuasca therapeutically has great promise but it is more difficult to work with in clinical trials, especially FDA-approved clinical trials, because it’s a plant. There’s just an inbuilt bias against plants in the FDA. Yes, you could make an analog of ayahuasca, but that really is not ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is quintessentially the plant remedy. You can study psilocybin isolated from mushrooms, it’s a pure compound that’s very well defined, and you can study MDMA, which is not even a natural product, but ayahuasca is different. So how are we going to deal with ayahuasca? It doesn’t really fit into this biomedical clinical study placebo controlled paradigm. Neither do the others frankly but you can pretend that you can have a placebo control. When people are throwing up all over the place it’s hard to pretend that you don’t know who got the active dose.
So we have to study ayahuasca in a different way I think. That is a challenge but also a great opportunity because we have a chance to study it in a context that’s close to the traditional way it’s used. I’ve long said that you don’t have to worry about doing these kinds of studies with the FDA. If you study it in Peru where it’s used, in some ways you honor its cultural origins. There are good clinicians in Peru, you could just study it down there, and why not? Eventually it may be integrated in the US and approved for clinical studies in the same way these others have been, but it doesn’t matter, you could just study it in South America. Plus it also opens up the possibility of creating a synthesis between psychotherapy and shamanic therapy, both of which bring complementary aspects to the table. Hybridizing these two disciplines together you could have a very powerful therapeutic paradigm.
I’ve heard you speak about the role of psychedelic facilitators before, be they shamans or psychotherapists, and it raises an interesting question about what their function actually is. In some ways it goes back to the comparison between psycholytic therapy– which emphasizes the role of the therapist- and psychedelic therapy- which is all about the individual’s emergent journey with the substance. What do you think about these two approaches?
They are distinct ways of utilizing them, and they’re both legitimate. I’m a big advocate of the idea that the medicine itself is the teacher, not the psychotherapist not the shaman. They are facilitators, they provide the context, but the real learning happens through the encounter with the individual and the medicine/molecule/plant. It’s that interpersonal connection- that’s where the action is.
In my own experience and that of many people, if you can provide a context where people do not have to worry about their safety, they know they’re going to be looked after, and they’re free to surrender and be vulnerable, that opens you up to getting the most out of these medicines. What people have to do is learn to surrender to it. The shaman or psychotherapist is there, but if they know what they are doing in my opinion their job is to step out of the way. They help you to have the experience, and then help you sort it out afterwards because the integration aspect of this is very important. But even there, the guides or the sitters should take a light touch because people can form their own opinions about their journey, they can evaluate it for themselves. I think that’s the optimal way to approach it. Rather than to impose the will or the expectations of the therapist or shaman, just let people experience it.
With ayahuasca it’s often said that you should have a goal going into it and state your intentions. I used to emphasize that myself, but I’ve sort of come around in some ways. If you have an intention going into it, that’s fine. If there’s something that you really want to get some insight about then ok, do that. But my own preference lately has been to approach it with very little structured intent. I tend to say “Tell me what I need to know, tell me something that you want me to know” and that’s how I approach it.
Through your organization Symbio Life Sciences, you have started to help facilitate ayahuasca retreats in Peru. How are these ideas about ayahuasca integrated into those retreats?
I organize these retreats a couple times a year down in the sacred valley. I’ve been doing these for about five years, and I’ve been taking ayahuasca for about 40 years, depending on when you start counting. A few years ago I met a curandero down in the sacred valley that I really respect. He exemplifies everything about a good shaman that I look for, primarily humility and lack of ego. He says “I’m not a shaman” and that’s what I need to hear. I mean, he is a shaman and he holds a wonderful ceremony, but he is a really decent fellow, very kind and compassionate. And because of that I’ve started doing these structured retreats down there.
Being in the sacred valley has its advantages. We generally run a 10 day retreat, and the first 3 days are just playing tourist. If people haven’t visited this area before, it’s really worth it to see Machu Pichu and all these other places. It also helps the group bond before you ever get to the retreat. We meet in Cusco, and by the time we get to the actual ceremony, we’re already friends and there’s a good dynamic.
We hold the number of attendees to about 15 or 20. We do three ceremonies, and each is separated by a day. We really emphasize preparation, integration, and the idea that this is a sequence. Three encounters with the medicine is a pretty ideal number. The first ceremony is opening up to the medicine and beginning a 7-day process in sacred time and sacred space. The second ceremony is where the deep work can happen, and the last one is more of an integration of what you’ve been shown. That said, everyone’s experience is unique and there’s no formula. Once you’ve entered into this sacred space and sacred time and I would say even sacred physiological space, what happens is the dynamic between you and the medicine. This has worked really well for us, and I like this approach.
We are very grateful to Dr. McKenna for sharing his insights with us. To read our other conversation on psilocybin, death and family healing, click here.