We Need Intercultural Dialogue About Ayahuasca

Whilst browsing studies on ayahuasca and checking video presentations from various international conferences, it became obvious there were only a few representatives of indigenous peoples among speakers, with almost none on the main conference panels  which lead indigenous peoples to raise their protest and concerns on several occasions.

In 2017 ICEERS published updated version of Technical Report about Ayahuasca, which says that “the oldest traces of possible use of ayahuasca have been found in the Azapa desert in the north of Chile, where residues of harmine have been found in hair analyzed from mummies from the Tiwanaku period between 500 and 1000 C.E. In the Azapa valley Banisteriopsis caapi does not grow, nor does any other harmine-containing plant, which suggests an intense commerce between the ancient populations of Chile and the Amazonian peoples; probably the former provided the latter with salt and the latter provided the former with medicines, among them ayahuasca. (…) the most ancient remains of paraphernelia for consuming hallucinogens have been found precisely in excavations carried out in the Atacama desert, and dated at 480 C.E +/- 60 years.” Even though we will probably never know for certain how old the ayahuasca brew actually is, it is a fact that ancient cultures and indigenous peoples were and are exploring altered states of consciousness – including psychedelic substances – far longer than we have.

The first church which uses ayahuasca as a sacrament was established in the 1930s (after about 1450 years) in Brazil. Others followed later, and today their branches are spread around the world. Some decades after, ethnobotany and anthropology became interested in the brew. For the past 25 years the interest in the use of ayahuasca is continuing to grow in Europe and the USA and modern medicine and psychology have started researching its benefits. Until 1980 modern science did not understand the mechanism which enables DMT in the brew to become bioactive.

Let me stress: the science studying the effects and benefits of ayahuasca is extremely important for our culture, because it proves what indigenous peoples already know: that it benefits human health and supports personal growth and social life of community. Studies and scientific evidence contribute to greater social acceptance of psychedelics and more appropriate legislation for our culture. Their culture does not have any of those issues.

The problem arises when science is taking the privilege by which only science can study and speak professionally  about ayahuasca. Could those who discovered and understood its mechanisms long before us know more than we do? Is a chemical formula and naming DMT more important than studying, understanding and using its effects? Especially because the knowledge was developed in cultures until not long ago were labeled as primitive? Are we able even to fathom that indigenous cultures might have developed a different kind of science and knowledge even though they did not invent electricity, cars and TV?

There are many examples of the attitude modern science takes towards indigenous knowledge. A number of medical drugs based on recipes discovered by indigenous healers are now manufactured by the pharmaceutical industry, and prescribed by medical doctors, while Other aspects of their healing knowledge are continuing to be regarded as primitive.

For over ten years I have been studying the indigenous knowledge and their ways of learning, always trying my best to understand it from their perspective. I am not claiming I completely understand them or their culture but what I am beginning to understand is that the major obstacle for the intercultural understanding of ayahuasca between indigenous peoples and science is the vocabulary indigenous peoples are using, and usually the lack of humbleness and will of science to understand it correctly.

People and societies develop vocabulary through time to describe the world as they perceive it, mainly by five senses. If we travel back in time 50 years, would anyone understand what the smart phone is? Indigenous cultures cultivated altered states of consciousness long before us, and developed vocabulary to describe those states, procedures and other realities. Such vocabulary is alien to us. Their words and descriptions are still being largely rejected as myths, legends, superstition, unnecessary ritual mumbo-jumbo. Speaking about energies, entities, altered states of consciousness or other realities – including teachers who inhabit them – is often unacceptable for our culture and modern science.

The Oxford dictionary says science »is intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment«.

Cultures which knew altered states of consciousness did exactly that. Only they went beyond the physical world. And in the eyes of science they failed because they didn’t get the same results with every trial, and because results can’t be measured by measurements and tools of physical reality. They couldn’t and can’t because other realities do not function by the same laws as the physical world does. Modern science did not begin to study altered states of consciousness until recently. Explaining altered states and their phenomena using inadequate vocabulary leads to limited understanding in best case, and in worst case to conflict. Science pushed the research of altered states of consciousness to the realm of borderline science, which is still controversial for many scientists, or even more likely to pseudoscience.

One of the benefits and also a trap of ayahuasca is that, compared to other techniques, it quickly takes a person to an altered state of consciousness. It is therefore easy to forget that shamans have studied their knowledge for as long as it takes our child to graduate. Some of them further developed and upgraded their knowledge similar to our education path from graduation to doctorate.

We mainly fail to understand that other realities also know exams, diplomas and other proofs for how good the student mastered a certain knowledge, including different energetic tools and gifts he or she receives after successfully  passing them. As for example energetic crowns. If you see an indigenous person wearing the feather crown it is most likely a symbol of the level of knowledge the person mastered. When such a person sits on the speaker stand on the conference, he or she is probably the better expert for ayahuasca than a person sitting next to him or her with the PhD title of this-or-that science.

Just a little food for thought: our culture developed technology based internet to share information. Indigenous peoples discovered the internet which enables communication between other realities, other forms of life and entities.

We need to include indigenous peoples to our conferences on the main stage and panels, and not somewhere along the side just for the impression there is an intercultural dialogue happening, or because the conference organizers are afraid the event might give an impression it is unprofessional or unscientific.

If we would honestly like to start intercultural dialogue, then scientists and ayahuasca users from our culture should sit together with representatives of indigenous peoples and ask each other two basic questions: what we need from each other, and what we can give to each other? It is obvious that our culture needs ayahuasca, we need scientific research of its benefits, we need our societies to become more open to psychedelics, we need better legislation. But did we ever ask what we may give to indigenous peoples, what they need from us, or even what they are willing to give us?

Crucially important would be to give them a chance to explain what they know, and for us to try hard to understand what they are saying. The fact we still don’t recognize their place and don’t give them the respect they deserve, has dire consequences for us all. They continue losing  their living space, identity and culture, and we are losing a chance to save ourselves from the financial, moral and environmental crisis we have inflicted on the world.

By Erika Oblak