Both underground ayahuasca use and legitimate ayahuasca research face many challenges in North America today, and not just because of the brew’s illegality. Would-be psychonauts who choose to take ayahuasca in the US face the challenges of finding a legitimate source and self-managing an extremely intense psychological experience often without any therapeutic support. Scientists hoping to study the plants are put in the challenging situation of taking an ancient ceremonial brew with a huge variance in preparation methods, source plants, potency, and ceremonial practices, and somehow reducing it to precise and repeatable dosages that can be tested against placebos. Even the two Brazilian churches who can legally administer ayahuasca in the US, the Santo Daime church and União do Vegetal (UDV), have their own idiosyncrasies, methods, and dogmas attached to them. The result of all these factors is a unique liminal moment in psychedelic history, as the West takes its first awkward steps to integrate this ancient medicine into our culture and laws.
Psychotherapist Dr. Rachel Harris has spent the last few years of her life studying the ayahuasca underground in North America, both as a participant and a researcher. Many of her personal insights and research findings can be found in her new book Listening to Ayahuasca. We spoke with Rachel recently about her experience in this complicated world that is both shady and glowing brightly with healing potential.
Thank you again for speaking with us Rachel. I’m curious what experience you had with psychedelics prior to ayahuasca, and how you became acquainted with this plant medicine for the first time.
I was at Esalen for a couple years in the 60s, and that’s somewhat synonymous with psychedelic experience [laughs] but it also indicates that we did them in a spiritual context. We were very serious in our approach and were always out in nature. I never did them in a recreational way, so it was a short leap into an ayahuasca ceremony.
I fell into the opportunity of an ayahuasca ceremony just as my daughter was in her last year of graduate school. It was as if the decades of being a householder and raising my daughter were for the most part complete, and I had a chance to pick up on my own path again in a way that made sense to me. I was very grateful I had some psychedelic experience prior to it- I’m kind of frightened for people that have no experience with psychedelics, and their first experience is with ayahuasca. It’s a really a strong experience, and I wonder how do they do it. These are not easy ceremonies, and people develop their own way of working through them.
As a culture, what sort of steps should we be taking to better understand and integrate ayahuasca?
I’ll answer as a researcher. The first thing that has to happen, which has been going on in LSD and psilocybin research for a decade now, is that we need proof that ayahuasca is safe. Many of us, including me in the underground know that it is safe, but it has to be be proven. That’s the first level of research that has to happen, and it is difficult because the brew itself- in terms of potency and dose- is difficult to standardize. There are stories about the plants having different potencies depending on when the plants are harvested, what song is sung while it’s harvested, or if it’s ‘black’ ayahuasca vine or ‘sky’ ayahuasca vine, which westerners don’t see distinctions between but shamans do. It’s very difficult.
Based on your experience in the underground, what kind of integration and therapy models do you feel work best with ayahuasca?
Someone described to me an experience where they were in an underground ceremony with a well trained indigenous shaman, and then the very next day there was a therapy workshop looking at families and family histories. It was just scheduled that way by serendipity, it wasn’t a planned thing, but it struck me as a really interesting format. I spoke to another person who was going to ceremony on Friday and Saturday night, and then he had a session with an ongoing therapist scheduled for Tuesday morning, and that’s a nice frame also. So I think there are opportunities for people to begin to design structures, even in the underground, even when it’s still illegal, that could be helpful.
What is your take on the ayahuasca churches in the US?
Where there’s a church structure with the Santo Daime and UDV, that’s a lot different than somebody just doing it in an underground ceremony. The UDV says emphatically this is only a sacrament and not for therapeutic purposes, so they stay in the religious context. The Daime church is different depending on who leads the local church. Some of them are more interested in the devotional aspects or even medium aspects, and some are more interested in personal transformation, so there is a wide range in the churches.
The one thing I have to say is that I’ve seen so many people a week or two after a ceremony who’ve been upset after one thing or another. For example, a very anxious woman once told me she had visions of an incestious relationship with her father during a ceremony. I said “Is there anyone in the church you can talk to about this?” and she said no. That’s very concerning to me, because I know she will not go to therapy. It’s not a question of if it’s true or not, that’s not even what I’m asking, it’s that she had nowhere to go with this experience. Whatever the structure is, we have to build in more care for people over a longer term.
Is integration the key to getting the most out of ayahuasca, or do we need to go even further?
Some form of integration helps immensely, but I’m concerned that even with integration, some of the benefit can be lost if it’s not worked with long term. Integration is generally the first couple of days or maybe a few weeks, but it’s not the same as an ongoing interactive therapy process. I think an ideal model can be played out in a variety of different ways, but it involves both the medicine, integration work, and the ongoing therapy, because over time things bubble up and unfold. Not everybody needs the ongoing therapy, but for the people who do, they really need it.
We are very grateful to Dr. Harris for speaking with us and for her important work studying the underground ayahuasca movement in North America. You can find a second interview with Rachel Harris here.