While Peru built the magnificent Inca civilization aided by the wisdom provided by the Coca leaf, it later became the first producer of toxic derivatives of this profaned plant. On the other hand, the healing use of Ayahuasca was discovered a few decades ago and in a short time its use exploded all over the world. What did the use of Coca in Western world respond to and what does the use of Ayahuasca respond to today? What can the path followed with Coca teach us in relation to the use of Ayahuasca? Will the accelerated desacralization of this medicine reach the same extremes as the misuse of Coca?
Their use in the treatment of addictions
The Takiwasi Center in Peru has been working for 25 years for the treatment of people confronting problems of drug addiction. In the treatment protocol, Ayahuasca plays a fundamental role, associated with the ritual use of many other plants inspired by the ancestral practices of the Peruvian Amazon such as purges, diets, plant baths, suctions, exhalations, etc. These resources are inserted in a dynamic that includes a psycho-therapeutic accompaniment and living together within a community of residents. This innovative approach is generating growing interest in scientific community. The clinical experience of the Takiwasi Center in Peru shows the benefits that can come from the traditional use of plants like Ayahuasca and Coca. Among these benefits, we can even notice that the Coca leaf used properly can treat cocaine addiction. Therefore, the problem does not stem from the plant but from its misuse.
The lessons of coca
Peru is one of the largest producers of Coca leaf and its addictive derivatives that supply drug trafficking at global level. Together with cannabis and alcohol, cocaine and cocaine paste are the substances most frequently consumed amongst our patients. Paradoxically, Coca leaf represented the source of the ancestral wisdom of the Andean world, the epicenter of the Inca culture which flourished for many centuries throughout the Andean region and was able to create marvels like Machu Picchu. The inhabitants of the Andes consume it even today without suffering neither dependence nor addiction. On the contrary, it is for them a source of health, strength, and spiritual awakening.
How could such a source of wisdom become one of the most addictive substances in the world? We owe this degeneration to the illegitimate appropriation of this plant by Westerners, that abandoned its religious, sacred and ritual uses, to replace them by a strictly utilitarian use, essentially controlled by greed. This path of abuse started for the Coca when it became to be used for the smooth running of mining production in general and of gold in particular, before becoming, in our days, a product designed to keep pace with the frantic rhythm of modern society, governed in its totality by the demands of an omnipresent market, and destined at the same time to counter the stress effects that arises from these same demands. Thus, the western lifestyle has induced frantic consumption of cocaine and other drugs that give the illusion of “holding up”. That’s how the ancient medicine of the Incas used in view of the highest ends has become the trap venom of modern life. The consequences of this desacralization have a very high price. This is a spiritual law.
Parallel with Ayahuasca
A similar desecration problem arises nowadays with Ayahuasca. The explosive spread of Ayahuasca over the last 30 years is essentially due to its appropriation by Westerners. However, this time it is not used to meet the productive goals of western consumerism but to give an answer to the existential crisis that arises from the exhaustion of the same society. Just as Coca, Ayahuasca is summoned to give a solution to the stress produced by the violence of modern society, but in a distinct way and for very different reasons. Coca, reduced to its active ingredients, enabled the endurance of stress by permitting to maintain the accelerated rhythm demanded by a system of generalized greed, without ever questioning it. On the contrary, Ayahuasca, to a certain point, interrogates this same system and represents a possible form of escape from that lethal dynamic, promoting the generation of alternatives. Through its visionary effects it responds also to the modern craving for images and screens. On the other hand, it does not generate any addiction even when it is reduced to its active ingredients.
Physical innocuousness and questioning to the system
These two differences, the non-addiction and the useful questioning to the system, lead many people who defend the use of Ayahuasca to think that it doesn’t have negative consequences for the Westerner who consumes it. We believe that, although it is true that the physical toxicity of Ayahuasca cannot be compared with that of the by-products derived from the Coca leaf, its potential mental and spiritual toxicity is greater on a large scale. Within tribal societies where the use of Ayahuasca was born, the rules are strict, the use of Ayahuasca is under the control of the community, and the spiritual struggle is permanent. The Westerners, profoundly marked by rationalism, are in a process of rejection of similar elements belonging to their own traditional roots: facing indigenous traditions, while appropriating some of their components, they will tend to create a light context, evacuating some of these traditional rules and adapting them. Thus, the risk is to appropriate Ayahuasca without being submitted to the ritual context that structures the intake, or by selecting at convenience the pieces of this ritualization that are suitable because they do not contradict expectations.
Moreover, that relative physical innocuousness that appears to exculpate the use of Ayahuasca hides subtle dangers that, precisely because of this subtlety, are widely ignored. They are more difficult to detect at first sight and, as a result, considered almost non-existent. While the effects of physical toxicity are immediate and difficult to refute, those of the psychological toxicity can manifest in a slow and progressive manner, and this apparent harmlessness is even more pronounced at the spiritual level. The greater the subtlety and difficulty to acknowledge, the greater the danger. The links to be established between the incorrect consumption of Ayahuasca and its deleterious effects on the short and medium term are difficult to highlight. Thus, inappropriate use of Ayahuasca can be very toxic at spiritual level, relatively toxic at psychological and mental level and non-toxic at physical level.
The spiritual taboo
The majority of those who take Ayahuasca give account of a “spiritual” dimension in its use, without defining what they mean by it. The reflection on this field presents an abysmal gap or, in other words, can be considered as almost nonexistent. It looks like a taboo subject. When the use of Ayahuasca is addressed from scientific, social and therapeutic approaches, it rightly demands the rigorousness of logical reasoning and demonstration of the hypothesis: bald affirmations are not permitted. However, when it comes to “Ayahuasca spirituality”, anybody can say anything without being demanded the same rigorousness and there is no space for questioning. This way we can observe that the “religious” use of Ayahuasca is tolerated and allowed in many countries and we have “Ayahuasca churches” which could make hear their experience, but personal opinions dominates, based solely on individualistic inspiration, without any critical mind or debates, without conceptual bases or doctrinal coherence, and without written or historical references.
Denatured by a world that separates medicine and spirituality
Just as Westerners thought they could exonerate themselves from the ancestral knowledge regulating the use of Coca (not to mention Tobacco and Opium Poppy, among other plants), they show now a tendency to appropriate Ayahuasca leaving aside the basic rules which were established for centuries or millenniums by the Amazonian societies. The ritual dimensions are either excluded for being considered folklore or of mere cultural significance, or considered in a purely formal way, and thus emptied of their true essence and content. Westerners claim a tradition to better adulterate it and, leaving aside the spiritual and religious dimension, forcing the thousand-years-old Amazonian wisdom to pass under the yoke of a reductionist conception of mental health. Thus, the traditional use of Ayahuasca is submitted either to a technical and utilitarian medicine, or to a disembodied spirituality, and thereby helps to dissociate body, soul, and spirit. In the end and in both cases, Ayahuasca is subject to the Western spirit, reinforcing and reassuring what it was supposed to question.
The misuse of Coca has warned us on the risks of a profane use of the sacred plants. This same danger also points to Ayahuasca but presenting itself in a different, more subtle way. The naivety of the Westerners is beginning to be challenged by the emergence of more and more frequent cases of abuse, accidents and psychic disturbances related to incorrect use of Ayahuasca. Despite that, the risks of spiritual disorders are still widely ignored and kept under silence. In fact, this supposes to overcome the “spiritual” or “religious” taboo who presides over western reductionist thought and return to the roots and teachings of the heritages left by the great spiritual currents of humanity.
In my opinion, studies, researches or reflections on the epistemological, philosophical, theological and clinical level remains to be done, to be at the service of practices in everyday use of Ayahuasca. This work is particularly essential in view of the naive vulnerability of Westerners to face the dangers of the intermediate spiritual world, where, often with total unconsciousness, they put at risk mental health and spiritual salvation.
MD, founder and executive president of Takiwasi Center.
Jacques Mabit, MD is the founder and executive president of Takiwasi Center. He is the author of several articles on the use of Ayahuasca and traditional Amazonian medicine in the treatment of addictions.