Ruminations on Appropriating Culture and Ayahuasca Tourism


Sit, be still, and listen, because you’re drunk and we’re at the edge of the roof.   ~ Rumi

The idea that the earth is alive, aware, and on a teleological (purposeful) journey of evolution that we are not only inseparable from, but designed and destined to be co-creative with, is a crucial one in these times.  However, this ‘story,’ and the lineage of cosmologies, ceremonies, and life ways that attend it, lies for the most part on the indigenous/aboriginal side of the world’s cultural divide.

On the other side of the divide, we find various religious creeds of dominion over nature, scientific materialism, and the whole phalanx of ideologies of separation from nature, from spirit, that run the global industrial empire.  What then are those of us born and raised in the realm of an off-planet God, who, inconveniently, hunger for spiritual connection with the earth, to do?   We have little choice but to rediscover, recreate, remember, or otherwise find ways to access that which is deficient in our own culture.  When this is called ‘borrowing,’ or ‘appropriating,’ from other cultures rich in these traditions, it takes on a political, and largely negative connotation.  This results in efforts to communicate across the divide becoming suspect, even pathologicalized.  Examples include controversies within the ‘Earth First!’ community around their uses of Native American earth honoring ceremonies, young activists angry at figures such as Sunbear, and Wallace Black Elk, for bringing Native wisdoms to non-natives in the 70’s and 80’s, a tribal shaman of whom I am aware recently having been forced to leave his village for sharing ceremonial ways with outsiders, anthropologists protecting their intellectual investment in the status quo of a culture they study, and Westerners with a lot of guilt.

Religious scholar Peter Beyer refers to this as an ‘implicit conflict between aboriginal peoples seeking to reconstruct their own nature-religion-based particularity on the basis of what they see as their own tradition, and those non-aboriginals attracted to the expressive power of those same symbolic resources.’  In addition, says anthropologist Ian Prattis, ‘Factors such as conquest, dependency, exploitation, and colonialism provide a volatile political context as the arena within which symbols are borrowed, reconstructed, and used’.  The idea is that forces encroaching on long-residence peoples commonly take their land, and erode or destroy their cultural heritage, which includes spiritual traditions.  Those that survive are now found to be of value to what some call the ‘New Age colonists’.  To some, this interest threatens the last holdout of Native identity.  To others, it signals the regeneration of these traditions.

As the ecological crisis (or, in the Chinese definition of the word, ‘opportunity’) on the planet intensifies, so do the issues around whether earth-based spiritual traditions are being colonized, or enriched, by adherents from outside of the cultures with which these ways have long been associated.  From the Gaian, or earth-as-organism perspective, it can hardly be argued that it is in the best interest of the biosphere that links with the sacred earth become re-established and strengthened among all factions of humanity.

To do so, to be pro-active in awakening us to, as Rumi says, our drunkenness on the edge of the roof, is a Gaian act of strengthening her immunodefense system.  It is often said that human behavior on the planet has become cancerous, threatening the entire web of life here.  What is cancer but the logic of empire, growth without limits, freedom without responsibility?   To mature beyond that self-contracting, egoic view, clears the path to a cure. The illness is therefore initiatory, as a perceptive cancer patient can tell you.  This places the current world situation in the frame of an initiatory crisis whereby humanity, and by extension the planet, is emerging out of adolescence, moving into a new phase of life (or death, depending on how it all goes).  From this view, we would all do well to serve this transition, to hold space for it, to energize it, rather than invest ourselves in scenarios of apocalypse, nihilism, hedonism, and denial.

We can understand this further via the perennial cosmology of resonance, ‘as above, so below’.  Humanity’s use of plants (the primordial ‘greenprints’ of all medicines) to effect healing is one of the primary ways the planet heals itself of aberrant human behavior.  Plants (and fungi) heal by helping to reorder disordered human ecologies, within both our individual and social bodies.  They can do this because they don’t have an ego to get in the way of Source transmissions, and because they are elders to the human tribe and are therefore, in the ecosystemic sense, smarter than us.  Healing is fundamentally a teaching of re-membrance to a species that easily forgets.

Herbalist traditions from around the world carry these transmissions from the plant kin-dom, these transcultural instructions, and we find them within the many cultures that affirm plants as medicines (unlike those that believe Nature waited for the coming of multi-national pharmaceutical houses to cure us of our ills).  In recent years, we find these traditions emerging and disseminating themselves across the planet in an herbal renaissance.  The rapid growth of Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine in the West are just two examples.

The herbal renaissance includes those plants and fungi that specialize in DEEP healing, in assisting initiatory death and rebirth processes, the rites of passage that appear necessary to evolve us thru our traumas.  These are emerging out of the sylvan cosmos, the equatorial forests of Amazonia and Africa, the deserts and mountains of Mexico, of Peru, and countless growrooms and clandestine gardens.  These are the Master, or Teacher plants, among the most powerful anti-bodies of the Gaian organism.  They heal thru effecting altered (and ultimately restored) states of consciousness, which scrambles the ego’s deluded programming, and clears psycho-spiritual space for a deeper, more pervasive intelligence to arise.  In this way humans become more attuned to the dialogues carried on continuously in the various dimensions of the Gaian body.  In this way we have the opportunity to retune ourselves to a narrative of graceful death and potent regeneration in support of positive outcome to the planetary drama.

Many of these plants and fungi have a long history with traditional peoples and play a significant role in their cultural identity, helping generate, and thereafter validate, their particular social mythos.  Hence social organization is inextricably bound by the realities and actualities revealed by these plants, (and one can be assured that they will not affirm anything contrary to their own, and the planet’s, well-being.).  The resulting eco-cosmologies contain cultural DNA for the renewal of the world, and are therefore of great value in these times.

These ways and worldviews, whether revealed by plants, or thru such embodied practices as sweat lodges, vision quests, sun dances, walkabouts, ecstatic dance, meditations, yoga, chi gung, etc., are all, at their root, the same.  This is because they all reflect the Gaian metabolism, they all allow us transparency to our original selves, to our connection to planetary beginnings, purposes, and destiny, to what Mayan shaman Martin Pretchel calls our ‘indigenous soul’.  There is a film called ‘Fire on the Mountain:  a gathering of shamans’ (Mystic Fire Video), that illustrates this well.  It records a 10 day meeting of indigenous elders and wisdom-keepers from every continent, who all seem to all be living the same eco-spiritually, one of blessings, purification, rituals of reciprocity and respect, offerings, and so on.  In addition, all feel moved to offer these ways to the larger world as gestures of healing and reconciliation from the elder peoples.  In this way they can be understood as agents of the Gaian defense system.

Just as it makes no sense to the indigenous soul to own the land, or the water and air above and below it, so no culture can own a plant, and no sacred tradition is proprietary.  All these ways belong to spirit, to the earth, and all are governed by spiritual principles.  If one treats these ways with respect and reverence, then access is gained.  Native American elder Joseph Epes Brown speaks of this when he says, ‘The powers and beings of the world wish to communicate with man;  they wish to establish a relationship, but may only do so where the recipient is in a state of humility, and is attentive with all his being.’  Religious studies scholar Bron Taylor reports from an elder in the Sun Dance that the requirement for participation is ‘sincerity, not race’.  Likewise, Native American Guy Lopez is ‘not opposed to mixed sweat lodge ceremonies, only sacrilegious ones’.

In any case, according to Taylor, culture-borrowing ‘is common, even endemic to all religions.  Syncretic and bricolage processes are significant in academic study of religions, as they are prevalent in the production of religions.  Ownership of sacred symbols is commonly contested in all religions, and this has much to do with status and power relations’.  Religion, says Joseph Campbell, is ‘misunderstood mythology’, beset by politics.  We must be careful to not confuse this with the ‘understood mythology’, the experienced spirituality, and in our discussion, the visions, whispers, and cataclysms of the Earth calling her children home, echoing the gravity of the Divine.

It is a human birthright to belong to the land.  However the ‘culture’ of the land, that which feeds our indigenous soul, is one we need to claim, to step up to meet, especially for those of us born into the great disconnect of modernity.  This takes on a special urgency for those called to a particular path of earth spirituality, such as pipe ceremonies, or singing a genre of medicine songs.  If the tradition of that spirituality is held by another culture or race, who has the right to stop someone by accusing them of appropriating culture?  That is, who has the right to judge sincerity, to argue with spirit?  Many of the more experienced practitioners of these ways say spirit can take care of itself, without the need of ‘culture cops,’ those most vocal in opposition to ritual syncretization.  Simply, they say that if one is disrespectful of these ways, then one reaps the negative results of that action.  This is a self-reinforcing spiritual principle, independent of politics.  Karma, ultimately, rules.

Such cross-fertilizations across the great divide is an effect of planetary balancing forces, moving cultural currents from high to low pressure, from lesser to greater needs, circulating energies among the human tribe.   We see this in the phenomenon whereby younger people of societies in entry-level association with global consumerism are attracted, even magnetized, by the novel possibilities, and tend to turn their back on the traditions of their grandparents, which they consider out-of-date or unsophisticated.  On the other hand, there are great numbers of Westerners who have grown up with hypermaterialism and are disillusioned with its rewards.  They in turn are drawn to lineages that appear to address deeper human needs unmet by the common values of industrialized societies, ways of being in the world that cultivate self-understanding rather than self-aggrandizement.

This is apparent in innumerable situations worldwide, including the embrace of Tibetan Buddhism in the West, the rise to roshi status of many American Zen Buddhist practitioners, non aboriginal didgeridoo virtuosos, foreigners coming to India to learn yoga from the source, the influx of non Indians into the Native American peyote church, and so on.  To the aging holders of such traditions, a foreign student, apprentice, or devotee is better than none at all, and are often outstanding for their appreciation of what has been felt as an absence in their lives, just as motorbikes, internet chat rooms, outboard motors, and discos are attractive to those who have not yet experienced them.

As spiritual practices are passed outside of their cultural homelands, as they become democratized through the media and spread through various social channels, they will inevitably go through changes, for better or worse.  It seems an appropriate role for those with extensive knowledge of the cultures involved to help midwife these changes, not to halt them.

Nevertheless, we see the ‘culture cop’ at work in a number of researchers who, paradoxically, both act to popularize the Teacher plants (and fungi) and bemoan the results of their actions. Ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson who ‘discovered’ mushroom shamanism in Oaxaca in the ’50’s, noted angrily the ‘mob of thrill-mongers seeking the magic mushroom (who) descended on Huautla de Jimenez – hippies, self-styled psychiatrists, oddballs, even tour leaders with their docile flocks, many accompanied by their molls – upsetting and abusing the quiet tenor of life in what had been, superficially at least, an idyllic Indian village’. Psychedelic researcher John Ott hopes that a book he has written on ayahuasca analogues, ‘will contribute to the demise of ayahuasca tourism in Amazonia, which can only disrupt the evanescent remnant of preliterate religiosity struggling to make a place for itself in the modern world. . .’. Anthropologist Marlene Dobkin Del Rios thinks that, ‘there is little hope for communication between the drug tourists and the Amazonians.’

These condemnations seem altruistic in their attempts to protect traditional life ways, but ignore the reality that healthy traditions are in a constant state of flux.  Furthermore, who is to tell shamans who they can and cannot serve, or tell anyone whom they can and cannot sit in ceremony with?  Anthropologist Donald Joralemon describes Eduard Calderon, a Peruvian shaman who uses the San Pedro cactus, as being quite successful at performing ‘rituals for spiritual tourists’.  Joraleman asks, ‘how did these differ from the performances he (Calderon) did for the benefit of Peruvians, which seemed so much more acceptable’?  How indeed?  By what criteria can shamanic acceptability and efficacy be judged except the degree of satisfaction of those who seek his or her services?  Calderon seems to be skilled in ‘navigating between local and international frameworks for understanding sickness’, at bridging different idioms of distress.  Other shamans seek to emulate his success, and they do not then become charlatans merely because they adjust their methods and explanations to those more easily accepted and understood by foreign clients.

It also seems obvious to consider it a positive development for young people to see their traditions valued by outsiders, as it encourages them to continue these ways, and makes their culture more economically viable.  Likewise, in their dealings with disruptive corporate and government forces, there are many instances of tribal peoples gaining invaluable allies among outsiders who have participated in their ceremonial life.

Beyond these concerns, Teacher plants (and fungi) are on a mission, and the more people they reach from the earth-threatening cultures who are open to their influence, the better. All facilitators of these medicines, whether they are aware of it or not, are in service to the dissemination of their variety of Gaian anti-bodies, and it is no surprise that many are traveling the world to do their work, just as many in the world are traveling to them.  The real surprise is that the medicines work as well as they do despite the not infrequent indiscretions of those who carry them around, despite the greed, jealousy, sexual opportunism, inadequate containers, outright charlatanism, and all the attendant astral craziness.   Like anything in life, buyer be aware.

Much of the discussion so far can be focused on an especially confused discourse, that of ‘ayahuasca drug tourism’.  As ayahuasca has grown in visibility, so has the circulation of this phrase, or others like it.  However, I suggest that it is a misnomer, an oxymoron.  If anything, ayahuasca is a cure for the inclination to do drugs, and to travel as a tourist.

Some definitions are in order.  In an America where we have a drug store in everytown, yet a war on drugs, the word has become as schizoid as the culture, and begs to be relinquished or restored.  I vote for relinquishing it to the druggies, and am defining it, after psychedelic philosopher Terence McKenna, as anything used to avoid the reality of one’s life circumstance and the responsibility for changing it, anything that engenders unconscious, addictive behavior.  Easily included are such things as T.V., credit cards, most pharmaceuticals, alcohol, junk foods, internet porn, presidential credibility, and so on. People into such drugs have little inclination to seek out ayahuasca, and if they do it is either because they don’t know what they’re getting into, or are looking for a way out of the world of drugs, in which case ayahuasca can be considered medicine.  Medicine is a word I consider worthy of putting energy into restoring, and plants like ayahuasca can do much to show the way.

Tourism, according to environmental journalist David Nicholson-Lord, is one of the ‘most potent agents of globalization — tourists are the shock troops of Western-style capitalism, distributing social and psychological viruses just as effectively as earlier colonists spread smallpox, measles and TB in their wake.’  Let us look at a previous time when ‘agents of globalization’, in the form of rubber tappers, entered into the Amazon basin.  At the turn of the last century there was a rubber boom which flooded the forest with prospectors looking for the ‘white gold’, who in turn enslaved and inflicted genocide upon native tribes.  While they were outmatched in nearly every way, the Indians employed at least one thing they had to their advantage:  ayahuasca, which can turn enemies into allies.

Raimundo Irineu Serra, or Master Irineu as he came to be called, and later, Jose Gabriel da Costa, were rubber tappers, who imbibed ayahuasca with Indian guidance in the forests where they worked.  Both were effected by the plants, by the forest, to found eco-Christian spiritual communities, which grew into the Santo Daime, and U.D.V. (Unio do Vegetal), religions respectively.  These religions have spread around the world, and carry in their doctrines many teachings of the indigenous soul.  Their hymns are visionary and prophetic, and appear to herald and fertilize a world birthing itself anew.

Whether circulating thru Brazilian-based religions, or any number of shamanic or radical psychotherapeutic venues, ayahuasca is now firmly planted in the human collective, and working subtle medicinal effects on our cultural life.  Though we may never know, e.g., how many social or ecological activists have been catalyzed into their passion by ayahuasca, it is becoming increasingly recognized that it can act as a soul-growth hormone, working on the premise that peace in the ecosphere must be preceded by peace within ourselves.  This is made apparent in recent research by anthropologist Michael Winkelman, who, in asking whether ‘Westerners who seek traditional spiritual medicine known as ayahuasca can be best characterized as ‘drug tourists’ or as people pursuing spiritual and therapeutic opportunities.’, finds the latter to be overwhelmingly the case.

While it has been true that, according to Dobkin Del Rios, ‘Ayahuasca healers spend a good deal of time involved in issues of personal aggrandizement’, these are holdovers from internecine tribal warfare, and now play themselves out mostly in situations of urban poverty.  There is little to gained from such behavior in the newer, more sophisticated workshop and retreat contexts in which the medicine is being used.  Though ontologically shamanism is concerned with issues of power, of good and evil, these need not be played out in the social sphere in acts of vengeance and retribution.  They can as easily be recast into catalysts for personal development and psychological self-empowerment, into dealing with the demons of the personality, the shadows of the psyche.  Anthropologist Francoise Barbira-Freedman speaks of the ‘current development of neo-shamanism in Amazonia, chamanismo,with its emphasis on ‘inner self’ and experience’.  There is little doubt that ayahuasca pilgrims have contributed to this shift, and as such their presence should be encouraged.

Whether understood thru ayahuasca, any of the earth-centered spiritual practices, or a growing common sense, it is becoming clear that we are in the cusp of an age of reclamation of our evolutionary heritage.  Our primary guide is the indigenous soul, itself a state of mind, available to anyone who walks the ways of the earth.  It is an awareness, not a thing of politics;  it is something one can develop, and is not dependant on the culture of one’s birth. This understanding is becoming increasingly relevant as the times spiral round to eco-conscious cultural shifts.

Little noticed embryonic traditions, emergent properties, are budding thru the compost of exhausted native cultures, and growing out of the deadwood of predatory capitalism.  These feed on nutrients from both sides of the cultural divide, and the new growth consumes and dissolves the divisions.  The crucible of history is alchemizing a more integrated, full-spectrum form of humanity, ushering in a new phase of planetary creativity.

Whether called the bridge people, earthheaven tribe, thrivalists, neo-indigenous, the ones we’ve been waiting for, sylvapolitans, one-hearted ones, or whatever, they/we represent the reality, meaning, and significance of ever-increasing interest in earth-centered spirituality. Underlying the so-called appropriations are gestures towards rediversifying, reconstituting, and ultimately healing cultural landscapes.  A possible outcome of the diaspora of sacred earth traditions is that conversion processes may overtake the 500-year momentum of colonization.  Certainly this is the vision of us who choose to walk the ways of the earth, and one shared by many indigenous people who feel ‘all struggles are one struggle’.  In this way it may be that the Indians actually win the ‘war,’ or the land wins, when spirituality native to the land is again widely practiced.

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