Thursday, January 27, 2011

“Everybody Hates A Tourist”: Can Ayahuasca Really Save Western Consciousness?

One of the stranger curiosities to take hold of the contemporary imagination is the ayahuasca experience. What was once a fringe psychedelic trip encountered occasionally in the more obscure writings of William Burroughs or early Wade Davis now sits prominently in North American pop culture awareness. The millions who sat through Avatar have enjoyed a bit of armchair proselytizing on behalf of ayahuasca. And the internet is awash with ayahuasca testimony, of course. But even the stiffs at the BBC, the NYT and The Atlantic have been flying down to the Amazon to imbibe the Divine Vegetal.

I have difficulty knowing just what to make of it all. Claims of ayahuasca efficacy can be quite extreme. Ostensibly the experience, under the guidance of experienced shamens in their natural environment, can cure loneliness, depression and even drug addiction, while engendering a globally communal consciousness. Even if these claims are taken with a grain of salt, the romantic possibility of resolving of one's competing mythologies — “Ten years of psychotherapy in a single night,” according to one initiate — has distinct appeal. But when I encounter an appeal like this, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. If ayahuasca has the power to save us all, why couldn't it inspire James Cameron to make a better movie?

Burning off the last of our fossil fuels to get people down to South America in an effort to save our species from extinction seems a tad counterproductive. And while vegetal evangelism seems to be making some modest gains outside its geographical and anthropological boundaries (despite its contraband status), if Western curiosity continues to grow I have to wonder if and when demand mightn't outstrip if not endanger the natural supply.

“Only connect” — Forster's maxim to the citizen artist — comes to mind as I mull this over. As the comments following this plea make clear, connection remains a challenge, even for those who do take that trip in the Amazon.

UPDATE: Jeff Warren has a terrific piece covering some of the complexities of the ayahuasca experience in the current issue of Maisonneuve. It's not available on-line, but it's well worth seeking out at the newsstand.

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